EU to sue Britain over Sellafield

Britain is to be prosecuted by the European Commission over its plans secretly to dismantle the site at Sellafield of one of the world's worst nuclear accidents.

Britain is to be prosecuted by the European Commission over its plans secretly to dismantle the site at Sellafield of one of the world's worst nuclear accidents.

The court action, which charges Britain with flouting European safety regulations, has been kept so hush-hush in Whitehall that even Michael Meacher, the Environment Minister, was not informed.

The prosecution - over an accident which has killed an estimated 32 people - is the latest blow to British Nuclear Fuels, where a multi-billion- pound black hole is now developing.

With the company losing many lucrative overseas contracts this year after the Independent's revelations of falsified safety data, and accounts due this week showing a £7bn increase in decommissioning costs, BNFL now stands as one of the costliest management fiascos in British history.

News of the EU prosecution will intensify the pressure on ministers to reconsider their planned privatisation of the firm, which has already been postponed until 2002.

The EC prosecution centres on the number one plutonium producing pile, the site of the 1957 Windscale fire, which remains the world's worst ever nuclear plant accident until the Chernobyl catastrophe nearly 30 years later.

On 7 October of that year, an operator threw a switch too soon at the pile, which produced plutonium for Britain's nuclear arsenal, and the resulting fire burned uncontrolled for three days. An official study has estimated that some 32 Britons will have died of cancer over the following years as a result of the radioactive pollution.

Now the UK Atomic Energy Authority (UK AEA) is dismantling the pile - which it owns - and the molten radioactive core in one of the most difficult nuclear decontamination tasks ever undertaken. It has contracted the work to a consortium headed by BNFL.

But Britain failed to inform the European Commission of the plan, as it is obliged to do under European law. The Ministry of Defence insisted this was not necessary because the pile was a military installation and exempt from the law.

The Commission is taking the issue so seriously because it says the Ministry's position would exempt the operation from European safeguards.

Mr James Woolley, legal adviser to the Nuclear Free Local Authority's Steering Committee, says that this could allow the work to be done free of any regulations at all.

"At the very least the Government has been cutting corners in trying to evade the European law which is there to protect the health and safety of all of us," he said.

The Commission sent the Government two warnings, at the turn of the year and in April, and, when these had no effect, took the decision to prosecute on 5 July. It said late last week that the issue was now for the European Court to decide.

Yesterday, in an apparent about-turn, the Ministry of Defence said that it now accepted that the law should apply to the pile as "the materials removed from it no longer have any defensive significance".

The UK AEA said it was preparing to send the necessary information to the Commission and that it would do the work abiding by all the rules that applied to it.

Wednesday's judicial review looks into a decision by the Environment Agency to authorise the disposal of radioactive waste from the manufacture of new warheads for Trident missiles and the decommissioning old ones.

If successful it could put a halt to the operations.