In a bizarre development, civil servants have told the Environment Minister, Michael Meacher, that a supposedly independent report by the accountancy firm Touche Ross - used to provide the economic justification for the Thorp reprocessing plant - had never been drawn up. An adviser to John Gummer, the former environment secretary, who announced the plant's go- ahead, confirmed yesterday there had never been any report as such.
The revelation comes as ministers are to be asked to approve the start- up of another plant at the Cumbrian nuclear complex. It would produce nuclear fuel from plutonium - the raw material for bombs - which would then be transported through Britain and Europe, creating potential security risks.
A new legal opinion by top barristers - including Presiley Baxendale, who played a key role in the Scott Inquiry - says the new plant should not be allowed to start up unless it can be proved that operating Thorp, to which it is linked, is justified.
The pounds 2.8bn Thorp plant was given the go-ahead by Mr Gummer in December 1993, after the report by Touche Ross had apparently concluded that it would earn Britain more than pounds 900m. By law, the Government was not allowed to approve the start-up unless the damage caused by the plant's radioactive discharges could be justified by its benefits.
Environmentalists, independent scientists and the Labour party in opposition all called for the report to be published, but British Nuclear Fuels Ltd (BNFL), which runs Sellafield, refused to do so on the grounds that it was commercially confidential.
Recently the Environment Minister, Michael Meacher, asked to see the report but was told, to his amazement, by top civil servants that it did not exist.
Yesterday, Tom Burke, special advisor for Mr Gummer when the decision was taken, said: "The so-called Touche Ross report was central to the case for starting up Thorp. It was absolutely vital to the argument presented by the Department of Trade and Industry that the commercial advantages of the plant outweighed its disadvantages.
"Everyone was told that there was a Touche Ross report, but it never existed as such. What did exist was a series of cashflow spread sheets, which were, in effect, a re-run of figures provided by BNFL to Touche Ross.
"There is no doubt in my mind that they would never have stood up to independent scrutiny, and there was no justification for refusing to publish them on the grounds of commercial confidentiality."
Mr John Roques, chief executive of Touche Ross, was then, and is now, a non-executive member of BNFL's board.
In a statement, BNFL said: "Touche Ross undertook a thorough examination of the economics of Thorp along with Treasury and DTI officials," and had concluded "that the economic benefit for the start-up of Thorp was robust." But the firm was unable to confirm what form the report had taken.
The revelation is bound to influence ministers in their decision to give the go-ahead to the new pounds 300m plutonium fuel plant at Sellafield. The decision will be considered by a committee of the Environment Agency on Tuesday and ministers are expecting to receive the document by the end of the month.Reuse content