Nuclear Reactor Seen as Possible Terror Target in Australia

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:16 PM EDT

( - Three suspected Islamic terrorists under arrest in Australia came to the attention of police when they were stopped in the vicinity of the country's only nuclear reactor and were unable to answer questions satisfactorily.

Police suspect the Lucas Heights nuclear research reactor near Australia's largest city may have been a target for a planned terrorist attack, according to court documents made public Monday.

The documents said men arrested last week had also been trying to accumulate large quantities of chemical ingredients for a highly-explosive material, which has been used in previous terrorist plots elsewhere.

The papers were released after prosecutors failed in an attempt to have them sealed.

In coordinated raids last Tuesday police arrested eight men in Sydney and nine in Australia's second-largest city, Melbourne, after which government officials said they had foiled a potentially "catastrophic" terrorist attack.

Criminal charges are being brought separately against the two groups of men, who are believed to be linked.

Those arrested in Melbourne, in the state of Victoria, were charged with offences including membership of a terrorist group and conspiring to commit an act of terrorism.

The eight captured in Sydney, New South Wales state, face charges of conspiring to manufacture explosives in preparation for a terrorist act.

Police factsheets before the Sydney central local court say, under the heading "Possible targets for terrorist attack," that three of the eight Sydney suspects had been stopped near the reactor south of the city last December.

Mohammed Elomar Hasan, Mazen Touma and Abdul Rakib Hasan were in a car, and also had with them an off road bike which they said they were planning to ride. When police interviewed them separately, each had given a different account.

Police found that an access lock on a gate to part of the reactor facility had been cut, the papers said.

Although near Sydney, the Lucas Heights complex is surrounded by a 1.6 kilometer-wide forested buffer zone.

The documents before court said some of the men under arrest had attended "jihad training" camps in a remote western part of New South Wales, about 1,000 kilometers inland from Sydney.

One had undergone firearms training at a terrorist base in Pakistan in 2001, run by Lashkar-e-Toiba. The al-Qaeda-linked group, blamed for numerous attacks in South Asia, has been banned several countries including Australia.

The outline of facts also said the suspects had also been trying to stockpile hundreds of liters of chemicals used to make TATP, a powerful homemade explosive.

The document said a search at the home of one of the suspects found instructions in Arabic for manufacturing the material.

TATP (Triacetonetriperoxide) is manufactured by combining easily obtained chemicals. It is also highly unstable - a characteristic blamed for the frequent bomb making accidents reported in recent years in the Palestinian self-rule areas.

The explosive was used by "shoe bomber" Richard Reid in Dec. 2001, and traces were reportedly found in property linked to the bombers who attacked London's transport network last July.

Jane's Terrorism and Insurgency Center reported in July that terrorists' use of TATP would have helped reduce the likelihood of detection by security forces, in a country where "any attempt to acquire commercial or military grade explosives is likely to quickly bring a terrorist network to the attention of authorities."

Lucas Heights, Australia's only nuclear reactor, has been operating since the 1950s. It is run by a federal agency, the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organization (ANSTO), which says on its website it holds regular emergency drills, including some involving outside law enforcement and response agencies.

New South Wales premier Morris Iemma told reporters Monday that adequate measures were in place to protect significant infrastructure like Lucas Heights from terrorist attacks.

The terror suspects in custody in Sydney are scheduled to appear again on Dec. 5, while those under arrest in Melbourne are due to reappear on Jan 31 next year.

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow