A judicial review of the Government's permission for the plant to open, granted in December after a year's delay, is being carried out at the request of Greenpeace and Lancashire County Council by Mr Justice Potts, who will not deliver his judgment until March.
However, a spokesman for BNFL said last night that it had told the court that it aimed to move on to the next stage of Thorp's operations, the fragmentation, or 'shearing' of highly radioactive spent nuclear power station fuel rods, on 7 March.
As soon as it does this, Thorp will have passed the point of no return. From then on parts of the plant will be highly radioactive and expensive to decommission. The cost could run to hundreds of thousands of pounds.
According to BNFL, Mr Justice Potts 'recognises the importance of the date', and has said that he hoped to give his judgment before 7 March.
Greenpeace, which is attempting a last-ditch legal battle to halt operations at Thorp, said yesterday it was considering whether to apply for a stay under which the court could stop BNFL going ahead.
The fuel the company wants to shear comes from a British AGR nuclear power station at Heysham, Lancashire. BNFL claims it is losing pounds 2m for every week that Thorp is delayed. If Mr Justice Potts found in Greenpeace's favour, it would delay the start of full- scale operations for months and raise the prospect of Thorp never opening.
Greenpeace and Lancashire County Council claim that John Gummer, Secretary of State for the Environment, and Gillian Shephard, Minister of Agriculture, were wrong to grant BNFL authorisations for radioactive emissions from Thorp into the air and the Irish Sea without first holding a public inquiry.
Greenpeace said yesterday that BNFL was jumping the gun. 'This shows utter contempt for the fears of 80,000 people who have expressed real concern about radioactive discharges . . . and who have stated a desire for a full and independent public inquiry.
'It is an act of desperation, a futile and forlorn gesture because they will only have to pay to clean it up when we win the case. This is also public money, so is a scandalous waste.'
The Nuclear Installations Inspectorate said BNFL would need further consents from the safety watchdog before it could go ahead with the shearing, but it was possible it would gain these before 7 March.
Immediately prior to the judicial review, on 12 January, Greenpeace withdrew an application for a stay on BNFL moving ahead with Thorp's operations. This followed evidence from the company's lawyer that there would be no significant radioactive contamination of the plant for at least 30 days. But the court case has taken longer to complete than anticipated.Reuse content