John Gummer, Secretary of State for the Environment, is considering whether to hold a local inquiry while Gillian Shephard, Minister of Agriculture, is considering whether to allow a hearing. An inquiry would delay the plant's commissioning for about a year, and might give the Cabinet grounds to cancel it.
The political sensitivity surrounding the issue was noteworthy yesterday as ministers presented a united front of silence, although a statement will be made before MPs rise for the summer recess.
The apparent switch from the Government's earlier intention to allow only the most limited form of public consultation possible is thought to flow from strong legal advice in Whitehall that meaningful public consultation would be needed if the Government was to avoid a string of High Court judicial reviews.
Last Thursday, John Major underlined that the project, British Nuclear Fuels' Thermal Oxide Reprocessing Plant, would support about 3,000 jobs and had contracts worth pounds 9bn.
That was taken by some observers as a hint that it would get the go-ahead. But he also struck a cautious note, saying it would be inappropriate to prejudge considerations by Mr Gummer and Mrs Shephard of inspectors' reports on proposed new discharge authorisations for the site.
An inquiry would be greeted as a major victory for environmentalists who have campaigned against Thorp, while the delay would allow the Government breathing space in the face of a steady build-up of problems, including international moves to tighten the rules on discharges of radioactivity into the sea.
But BNFL has estimated that each week's delay will cost it an additional pounds 2m.Reuse content