UK authorities are underestimating the risks of devastating terrorist attacks on nuclear plants and shipments of radioactive material, according to an expert report seen by the Sunday Herald.

A new analysis for the 40-strong group of Nuclear-Free Local Authorities (NFLA) highlights the vulnerability of Scottish nuclear facilities at Faslane, Hunterston, Torness and Dounreay to mass drone strikes, sophisticated cyber attacks and terrorist infiltrators.

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The report has demanded urgent action from ministers as it warns that governments and regulatory agencies are struggling to keep up with evolving threats with regular transports of nuclear materials by road, rail, sea and air also potential targets.

Backed by a second expert report, NFLA is calling for anti-radiation pills to be distributed to households in Glasgow, Edinburgh and surrounding areas as a precaution. This could help protect people from a radiation leak from an accident or attack at nearby nuclear power stations.

The report on nuclear security was compiled by Dr David Lowry, a senior research fellow with the Institute for Resource and Security Studies in Cambridge, USA, and a former director of the European Proliferation Information Centre in London.

He thinks that the most likely attack is a mass drone strike against fuel stores at reactor sites, or against fuel flasks being transported by rail around the country.

“The main consequences would be, whatever the level of attack, mass public panic and sensationalist media reportage,” he says. “We would inevitably see total road gridlock, as everyone tries to flee by car en masse at once.”

His report argues that a series of unidentified drone flights over French nuclear power stations last summer “should be seen as a major wake-up call for the nuclear industry”. Drones could carry shaped charges, poison gas, booby traps or decoys, and could come individually or in large groups.

“One heavily laden small drone could probably travel at least 20 mph with a load of 5-10kg,” says the report. “Just one 5kg shaped charge can penetrate 0.75 meters of reinforced concrete, or 0.25 meters of steel.”

According to the report, there was evidence that the US and Israel had infected a nuclear power plant at Natanz in Iran with the “stuxnet” virus, causing multiple malfunctions. It was said to have been introduced using an infected memory stick.

It is easy to underestimate the risk of insider attacks, Lowry’s report warns. In October 2015 a worker was reportedly marched off the Hunterson nuclear site in North Ayrshire after he was seen studying bomb-making websites on his laptop.

The report points to “disturbing” evidence that suspects linked to the Paris and Brussels terror attacks in November 2015 and February 2016 had files on nuclear facilities, and had been monitoring nuclear workers.

Lowry accuses pro-nuclear politicians of being “ignorant” of the dangers and overlooking the consequences. “This is a very dangerous state of affairs that requires urgent rectification,” he says. 

The second report for NFLA was written by Dr Ian Fairlie, an independent radiation scientist, and focuses on the stable iodine tablets that can prevent radiation poisoning after some nuclear accidents. They are widely distributed in advance by several other European countries, but only given to residents who live within two or three kilometres of nuclear plants in Scotland.

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In a submission to the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, Fairlie recommends that they should be spread much more widely.

“In Scotland iodine tablets should be distributed to families in the large cities Edinburgh and Glasgow, given their relative proximity to Torness and Hunterston,” he says.

“This is not to indicate anything untoward, merely that it's always better to be on the safe side, just in case. We all accept lifejacket and seat belt precautions on planes and cars without a moment's thought. This is the same.”

NFLA Scotland convener, Glasgow Labour councillor Bill Butler, urged ministers to consider wider distribution of the tablets in Scotland. “The recent terrible terrorist attacks in Brussels, and the possibility that nuclear facilities were being considered as a target, is chilling,” he said.

“As new threats like drones, cyber attacks on sensitive IT systems and insider attacks on a nuclear site grow in complexity, it looks like authorities are struggling to keep up with them.”

The Scottish Greens environment spokesperson, Mark Ruskell MSP, accused UK governments of hiding nuclear security problems behind a losing campaign for new nuclear power. “It’s time for the Scottish Government to step up and instruct their resilience division to consider in detail Dr Lowry’s report and the actions we need to protect the public,” he said. 

The Scottish Government pointed out that the armed Civil Nuclear Constabulary (CNC) was in charge of protecting civil nuclear sites across Britain. “Police Scotland, as well as Scotland's other emergency services, work closely with the CNC to ensure that they keep their security plans under constant review, and consider their capability and preparedness,” said a government spokesman.

He confirmed that iodine tablets had been distributed to households in designated emergency planning zones around nuclear stations. There were also stockpiles of iodine tablets in Scotland “which can be distributed to the site of an incident to treat the affected population as required.”

A spokeswoman for the UK Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR) said: “Duty holders within the UK civil nuclear industry are required by ONR to demonstrate that they have the resilience against a range of external threat scenarios. These scenarios are updated regularly considering developments in technology and other areas.”

ONR pointed out that iodine tablets did not provide protection against all nuclear accidents. “The distance to which tablets are distributed around a nuclear power station is considered on a case-by-case basis,” the spokesman said.

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The Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) in London argued that the UK had one of the strongest levels of nuclear regulation in the world. “The ONR monitors sites on a regular basis to ensure that stringent levels of security and safety are maintained and to protect sensitive nuclear information,” said a DECC spokeswoman. “Any nuclear power station built in the UK complies with our robust nuclear regulations, and all employees and contractors in the civil nuclear industry are subject to rigorous personnel security and vetting arrangements.”

EDF Energy, the French company that runs nuclear power stations in Scotland, and the Ministry of Defence, which runs the Faslane nuclear base, declined to comment.