Ministers are poised to halt the dumping of radioactive waste from Sellafield in a dramatic U-turn, The Independent on Sunday can reveal.
Britain is facing court action from Norway and Ireland over its refusal to stop discharging radioactive waste from the Cumbrian nuclear reprocessing plant into the Irish Sea. But the Norwegian government said yesterday that Margaret Beckett, the Secretary of State for the Environment, had written on Friday offering to suspend the dumping of radioactive Technetium 99 (Tc-99) until March next year.
The letter said that the suspension of dumping was to allow British Nuclear Fuels Ltd, which runs Sellafield, more time to find a way to permanently store the waste on land. The offer - confirmed by Mrs Beckett's officials last night - has taken anti-nuclear campaigners and the Norwegians by surprise.
At a meeting last month between the then environment minister, Michael Meacher, and his Norwegian counterpart, Borge Brende, the Norwegians were told discharges would not be halted.
The new proposal reflects mounting embarrassment about Britain's isolation over Sellafield. The UK is already being sued by the Irish government over the plant's radioactive discharges.
Norway and Ireland allege that the radioactivity accumulates in fish and lobster, threatening their fishing industries and the health of consumers. They are worried about the environmental consequences of the BNFL's plans to release 2000 cubic metres of Tc-99 into the sea between now and 2007.
But the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs warned that BNFL and Nirex, the Government's radioactive waste disposal agency, still had to find a way to solidify the waste for long term storage.
Greenpeace and the Nuclear Free Local Authorities group denounced the offer because Britain would continue pumping other radioactive wastes - breaching a promise in 1998 to stop doing so.
"This is a cynical attempt by the UK to distract attention from their failure to do anything for the last five years on overall discharges of radioactivity. In fact, it's going up," said Pete Roche, a Greenpeace spokesman.