A shipment of several kilograms of uranium was seized at Heathrow airport, leading to a major counter-terrorism investigation. The undeclared nuclear material, which can be used in a dirty bomb, is suspected to have been destined for Iranian nationals in the UK and originated from Pakistan.
The uranium, according to sources, was "not weapons-grade" and so could not be utilized to create a thermonuclear device. However, it is believed that the security services are looking into the possibility that the unauthorized cargo was intended for a "dirty bomb," a type of improvised nuclear device and has sparked fears of the UK being the target of terrorists once again.
Scotland Yard has verified that on December 29, 2022, a package from Oman tested positive for uranium. Traces of the radioactive chemical were discovered during what the Metropolitan Police Department has called a "routine security screening," leading to the package's seizure by counterterrorism personnel at Heathrow Airport in London.
Although a live investigation is still ongoing, the Met quickly assured the public that there was no risk to anyone who may have been at Heathrow on that day.
"From our inquiries so far it does not appear to be linked to any direct threat. As the public would expect, however, we will continue to follow up on all available lines of inquiry to ensure this is definitely the case," Commander Richard Smith of the Met has said.
The shipment was originally transported from Pakistan and arrived in the UK before being delivered to an Iranian-owned company with locations there.
Investigators, however, believe the unauthorized shipment may have been a "dirty bomb," an unreliable nuclear weapon.
Such a gadget disperses a deadly radioactive cloud using conventional explosives and nuclear material, which has long been a counterterrorism expert's nightmare scenario.
UK Under Threat?
Police have not made any arrests but the investigation is still on. "The package contained kilos of uranium - but it was not weapons-grade," a source told The Daily Mail. Another source told The Sun that there is an overwhelming "concern over what the Iranians living here wanted with non-disclosed nuclear material."
"The race is on to trace everyone involved with this rogue non-manifested package. Security bosses are treating this with the seriousness it deserves. The protocol was not followed and this is now an anti-terror operation," the source told the publication.
The undeclared package was discovered by specialized scanners as it was being delivered to a freight shed. When Border Force agents realized the consignment included uranium, they isolated it in a radioactive chamber and alerted the counterterrorism police.
"Uranium can give off very high levels of poisonous radiation. It could be used in a dirty bomb," Hamish De Bretton-Gordon, former commander of the UK's nuclear defence regiment, said.
"The good news is the system worked and it has been interdicted."
It is believed that forensic specialists are still looking over the nuclear material. A dirty bomb or chemical weapons strike on a significant Western city was "only a matter of time," the then-head of MI5 warned in 2003.
According to Eliza Manningham-Buller, intelligence assessments indicate that "renegade scientists" may have provided terrorist organizations with the knowledge they required to develop such weapons.
According to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Iran has more than 60 kg of uranium that has been enriched to 60 percent, putting it within the reach of one atomic bomb.
The construction of a bomb small enough to go on a missile would then require significant technical challenges to be addressed. But according to the UK, Iran is making quick progress on a prospective weapon.
Iran and six nations, including the UK, reached a deal in 2015 to limit Iran's capacity to develop nuclear weapons in exchange for the removal of economic sanctions. All international sanctions relating to Iran's nuclear program were lifted a year later the IAEA determined that Iran was upholding its half of the bargain.
But in 2018, former US President Donald Trump pulled out of the agreement. US allies, including the UK, have since been scrambling for a diplomatic solution.