• The Sun report claims uranium on flight from Karachi detected during scan
• Officials say no word from UK on probe so far
LONDON/ISLAMABAD: Reports that a package containing uranium originating from Pakistan arrived at Heathrow Airport last month sparked panic in the United Kingdom on Wednesday, but Pakistani officials insisted that London has not contacted Islamabad regarding the investigation into the matter.
Officials also said that the shipment did not originate in Pakistan, as is being claimed by British media, and suspected foul play behind insinuations that the shipment had been booked from Karachi.
“No information to this effect has been shared with us officially. We are confident that the reports are not factual,” Foreign Office Spokesperson Mumtaz Zahra said when asked to comment on the reports in British media that the seized material came from Pakistan.
Although initial media reports mentioned fears of a “deadly shipment” that may have been used to make a “dirty bomb”, soon after the story was first reported by tabloid The Sun, multiple UK officials stressed the amount of radioactive material was “extremely small” and posed “no threat to the public”.
It is learnt that the cargo package arrived at Heathrow Airport Terminal 4 via Oman Air passenger flight WY 101, which arrived on the evening of December 29. The flight originated from Pakistan, where UK officials believe the package was checked in as cargo, and had a stopover in Muscat, Oman.
Upon arrival, the package was detected by regular airport scanners, which alerted Border Force officials to analyse the contents. The package contained scrap metal and the uranium in question was “embedded into metal bars”.
The Sun claimed that the package was being shipped to UK-based Iranian nationals, with other media outlets saying it was shipped to a London-based business owned by Iranians.
‘No metal’ booked on flight from Pakistan
An official, who had been briefed on the issue, said that Oman Airlines’ flight on Dec 29 had left Karachi for Muscat at 04.00 hours and its cargo contained frozen meat and apparel/garments. “No metal or out-sized cargo was booked on the flight,” the official emphasised.
Officials fear that Pakistan is being deliberately drawn into this issue for maligning it.
Such an incident, if it were to have happened, would have raised questions about Pakistan’s export control mechanisms and security of its radioactive material.
Pakistan boasts to have streamlined and strengthened its export control regime over the years. It is always emphasised by the officials that as a responsible nuclear state it is the government’s policy to advance the shared goals of non-proliferation and strictly adhere to its commitments.
Meanwhile, multiple incidents of seizure of radioactive material in India over the past few years has not only pointed to the possible existence of a nuclear black market there, but also exposed India’s lax arrangements for securing radioactive material including the imported one.
Measures by UK authorities
In UK, the Metropolitan Police said its counter-terrorism command unit was informed by Border Force officials after the package and praised “the excellent capability we and our partners have in place to monitor our ports and borders in order to keep the public safe”,
Speaking at the London Assembly Police and Crime Committee on Wednesday, Commander Richard Smith, head of the Met Police counter-terrorism command, said that police will “follow every avenue” to find out the circumstances in which it arrived in the UK and its intended purpose.
He said it was understandable that a report like this would attract considerable attention and potentially concern. “The circumstances are that in the course of routine scanning at London Heathrow an element of cargo was identified that was emitting a radioactive signal. There are procedures in place to deal with these sorts of incidents and those procedures were enacted. As part of that the counter-terrorism commands were contacted and have opened an investigation into the surrounding circumstances.”
He clarified that there was no risk to public health, and that the “consignments that had been identified included a very small amount of contaminated material”.
“The amount of material we’re talking about was very small, and there was no threat to public health or public safety identified.
Speaking to Sky News, former head of the British Army’s chemical weapons unit, Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, said it was “a concern” that the material reached the UK all the way from Pakistan, but that the public should be overly worried. He added, however, that whatever the origin, the material “absolutely shouldn’t be on a commercial airliner”.
Uranium is a radioactive metal found in rocks, and is commonly used as fuel for nuclear power plants and reactors that power naval ships and submarines. It may also be used in nuclear weapons.
Uranium would typically fall under the category of dangerous goods under UK law, and requires the sender to ensure its classification, packaging and marking for transportation.
Dawn also reached out to government officials and Civil Aviation Authority representatives for comment, but they said they were not aware of the incident.
Published in Dawn, January 12th, 2023