UK is prosecuted over nuclear risk

Euro legal action on pollution threatens private firms at military sites, reports Severin Carrell
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The Independent Online

The UK is being prosecuted for breaching international nuclear safety rules after allowing a US-owned dockyard to dump a five-fold increase in radioactive discharges into the sea.

The European Commission claims the UK failed to investigate fully the health risks of allowing Devonport dockyard in Plymouth, run by the Brown & Root subsidiary of the US engineering giant Halliburton, to pump more radioactive tritium into the Tamar river.

The case, which will go to the European Court of Justice, could hit the profits of private firms running the UK's military nuclear sites. The Commission claims the UK has repeatedly failed to take proper account of the potential risks to other countries from its radioactive waste discharges - breaching its legal duties under the Euratom Treaty of 1957.

The Devonport prosecution is the second in which the UK has been accused of breaching the same set of safety rules, The Independent on Sunday can reveal.

Last month, the Commission took the UK to the European Court of Justice for failing to carry out proper safety checks when it closed down a small nuclear reactor at Greenwich naval college in south-east London in 1996. The reactor had been used for more than 30 years for training nuclear submariners.

Both cases could have serious implications for Britain's nuclear weapons programme and are fiercely contested by the Ministry of Defence.

If the Commission wins, the UK will have to introduce stricter and potentially more expensive controls on radio- active discharges and be forced to prove they are safe and justifiable.

This could hit the privately run nuclear bomb-making factory at Aldermaston, which is operated by a consortium of BNFL, Serco and the US armaments firm Lockheed Martin, by forcing it to cut its release of radioactive waste into the air.

Devonport Management, the Plymouth yard's operating company, could face far higher costs refitting the Trident submarine fleet tocut its waste discharges into the sea. The cost of decommissioning Britain's retired nuclear submarine reactors could also increase.

Whitehall sources claim Brussels is empire-building but senior emergency planning officials have accused the Government of "arrogance" in ignoring its legal obligations. Caroline Lucas, Green Party MEP for south-east England, said: "If we're dealing with something as potentially hazardous as radioactive waste, it's extremely worrying that we are ignoring such important rules."

In a third legal dispute, Britain has told the Commission it will resist moves to give Brussels greater control over the handling of accidents at nuclear power stations run by British Energy and BNFL.

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