Mox nuclear processing plant opens for business hours after licence is granted

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The Independent Online

Britain's most controversial nuclear facility quietly opened for business early yesterday morning only hours after it received an operating licence from the Government's regulatory watchdog.

British Nuclear Fuels took immediate advantage of the consent by inserting a plutonium fuel rod for "calibration" of the Sellafield mixed oxide (Mox) plant in an operation that began at 2.15am. It is the first stage of an irreversible process of plutonium commissioning, which will ultimately turn the Mox plant into a highly radioactive facility for generations to come.

Environmentalists and some European countries – notably Ireland and Norway – have bitterly opposed the Mox plant on the basis that it will generate radioactive waste and will create an international trade in dangerous plutonium fuel.

Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and other environmental groups have fought the opening of the Sellafield Mox facility in the courts but BNFL said yesterday that there were now no legal, technical or administrative barriers to the full-scale operation of the plant.

Full commissioning of the Sellafield Mox Plant will contaminate the pipes and tubes of the £472m facility in Cumbria for ever, creating an environmental hazard that will persist for thousands of years.

A spokesman for BNFL said that final commissioning will now take place unannounced within the next few weeks. Yesterday's calibration test, he said, was the first stage in that process. "This involves introducing plutonium-bearing material in order to start testing the plant and equipment as a precursor to Mox fuel manufacture," BNFL said.

"There will be a phased and prudent ramp-up of commissioning for Mox fuel manufacture," it added.

The Nuclear Installations Inspectorate, the nuclear arm of the Health and Safety Executive, inspected the plant earlier this week and gave its consent for the plutonium test to take place. The HSE said: "This stage will result in the use of plutonium for the fabrication of Mox fuel in this facility for the first time."

Mox fuel is made from the reprocessed fuel of nuclear reactors and is designed to complete the "recycling" process. However, environmental groups believe that the Mox plant will generate more waste than it uses, and that the process will lead to dangerous shipments of plutonium that could be hijacked by terrorists.

The controversial nature of the Sellafield Mox plant came to the fore two years ago when The Independent revealed that BNFL employees had engaged in fabricating safety data relating to the small Mox pellets made from mixing the powders of uranium and plutonium oxides. Because of the revelations, and BNFL's subsequent lack of candour about the extent of the problem, the company's main Japanese customers demanded the return of Britain's first and so far only Mox shipment to Japan.

Government auditors estimate the plant will generate £216m over its lifetime.