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EC challenge to Thorp

BRITAIN is facing an unexpected challenge to its plans to start up the controversial Thorp nuclear plant, as international pressure against the project mounts. Half of its European Community partners have called for a special investigation of the environmental impact of the reprocessing plant at Sellafield, Cumbria, and Brussels has formally written to the Government in a step that could lead to legal action in the European Court.

Ministers are deciding whether to allow the pounds 2.8bn plant to start operation, amid concern that it will increase pollution, add to the proliferation of nuclear weapons, and prove a financial liability. British Nuclear Fuels said last week that Thorp was 'an excellent example of a safe and successful high-technology, export-orientated British business'. A formal announcement is expected before Christmas.

Brussels has provided one of the few havens of international support for Thorp, with consecutive Environment Commissioners appearing to give it a clean bill of health. But some senior officials now dispute this and appear determined to bring Britain to book.

The EC has officially written to the Government following a complaint that it has not provided Ireland with sufficient information on the plans, as required under the 1985 Environmental Impact Assessment directive. This is a routine action, but could lead - if Brussels is not satisfied with the response - to legal action ending in prosecution in the European Court.

Senior EC officials are taking the complaint very seriously and accept neither a formal opinion by the former environment commissioner Carlo Ripa di Meana that other countries would not be significantly affected by waste from the Thorp process, nor one by the present incumbent, Yannis Paleokrassas, that the directive would not apply to Thorp, which was given planning permission before it came into effect.