NEWS… BUT NOT AS YOU KNOW IT
A group of up to six drones was reported to armed police after being spotted over a British nuclear plant in an incident which remains unexplained, newly released information shows.
The unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) were spotted over Capenhurst in Cheshire, according to a disclosure from the Civil Nuclear Constabulary (CNC), a specialist armed police service.
The list of incursions into airspace above or near UK facilities, which redacts some details, also includes a report of ‘flashing lights in the sky’ from an object which was not identified.
Two sparse reports at Capenhurst relate to sightings which were made within the space of four days in July 2019.
The first describes a ‘report of 5 – 6 drones flying over and around the site’, which holds a nuclear licence. The second is a single line which states: ‘Report of a drone overflying the site.’
A log previously released by the government suggested there has been a ‘swarm’ incident – where interlinked drones take part in the same operation or attack – at a nuclear facility on an unspecified date.
Peter Burt, of the Drone Wars UK platform, said: ‘Some of the incidents listed are probably just cases of careless flying by individual drone operators, but others, if accurate, seem far more malicious in their intent – such as the report of several drones flying over and around the Capenhurst uranium enrichment site in July 2019.
‘In the majority of the cases, the police were unable to positively identify aircraft or pilots, highlighting the difficulties in countering the use of drones for illegal purposes.’
In total, there were 11 reports of ‘unauthorised aerial incursions’ at UK nuclear facilities between May 2019 and November last year in the list disclosed under the Freedom of Information Act.
The latest was at Springfields, near Preston in Lancashire.
The log reads: ‘Report of flashing lights in the sky which was described as a low flying object overflying the site. No craft or pilot positively identified.’
Other reports of UAV activity relate to Heysham, also in Lancashire, and Sellafield, located on the coast of Cumbria.
‘Drones are a relatively new technology with potential to disrupt traditional security approaches,’ Mr Burt said.
‘They are easily available and can be bought by anyone to use for criminal purposes. Drones bought off-the-shelf have been adapted to deliver weapons by a number of non-state groups during conflicts in the Middle East, and in the Ukraine war we have seen how even the simplest drones can be used for reconnaissance and intelligence-gathering.
‘It’s encouraging to see that the police are willing to publish information on this issue, which helps us to understand the nature and scale of threats to nuclear security. If we are not able to safeguard nuclear power stations effectively from such threats, then we do need to consider using alternative, safer means of power generation.’
The Ministry of Defence (MoD) has released separate information about drone activity to Metro.co.uk under the Freedom of Information Act.
This has included three one-line reports, which did not give locations, from last year. One states ‘red light over area, sounded like a drone’ without giving any further information.
Another describes a pilot and two others operating a drone which was not within a no-fly zone.
The final report states: ‘Member of public saw white van and a male, stated also observed two lights in the sky and believed they were drones.’
A passing detail in another response, from the Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONS), shows there was a report of the swarm at an unnamed nuclear licenced site in the UK.
The incident took place between January 2014 and July 2020, according to the regulator, which gave no further details.
The ONS refused to release any more information after considering the public interest but deciding it was outweighed by national security.
It is not clear if the group of drones reported at Capenhurst is the same incident kept secret by the regulator.
The reports come at a time of heightened tensions between the West and China and Russia, which have each been linked to concerted physical and cyber spying operations in the UK.
In April, a source told the Sunday People that Chinese spies in the UK have been targeting ‘very sensitive establishments’, such as military bases and nuclear power stations, with the aerial systems.
In July 2020, the potential threat was demonstrated in the US when a swarm was spotted over a nuclear reactor in Arizona on two nights running.
Official reports show the incidents, said to have involved half a dozen craft on each occasion at Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station, went unsolved.
Drones, along with any type of unmanned aircraft, are banned under the Air Navigation Order 2016 from flying in the airspace of nuclear installations.
A spokesperson for the MoD has previously said: ‘We have robust security measures in place at all defence sites, including nuclear bases, to respond to all such incidents. While we cannot comment on specific security arrangements or procedures, we continue to invest in a range of measures to tackle future threats, including counter-drone technology.’
The evolving use of drones – including through civilian models adapted for reconnaissance – has been demonstrated on the battlefield in Ukraine.
Metro.co.uk has previously reported how the UK government has joined with the private and academic sectors in developing the technology.
A CNC spokesman said: ‘Drones are an advancing technology utilised within both the nuclear and policing industries. The evolvement of detection and anti-drone systems is continuous, along with changes in legislation, and awareness packages for both the hobbyist and legitimate operator.
‘As anti-drone technologies develop, the CNC actively reviews and assesses the benefits. While not commenting on individual reports, to our knowledge, there has been no confirmed malicious use of a drone in relation to the UK’s civil nuclear sites.’
The CNC forwarded the query about the reported swarm on to the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy, who said: ‘Any criminal investigations are led by the relevant local police force.
‘It would not be appropriate to comment further.’
Metro.co.uk has approached Cheshire Constabulary for comment.
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