Thorp report kept secret

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CRUCIAL information on the viability of the controversial Thorp reprocessing plant has been kept secret even from the ministers who are deciding whether to allow it to start up, the Independent on Sunday has established.

Neither John Gummer, the Environment Secretary, nor any of his officials have been shown a vital report by the accountancy firm Touche Ross, which British Nuclear Fuels uses to justify its claim that the pounds 2.8bn plant will make money. Treasury ministers and civil servants say that they are equally in the dark.

The report, which forms the basis of BNFL's economic case, has been kept so confidential that one top official told the

Independent on Sunday last week that he believed s that it does did not exist. Ministers are expected to give the plant the go-ahead this month.

This is a further aspect of the extraordinary climate of secrecy surrounding the 'public consultation' by ministers into the need for the plant. A survey by the Campaign for Freedom of Information, published last week, shows that ministers and public bodies have broken the law by refusing to release important documents.

BNFL has consistently refused to publish the Touche Ross report which, it says, shows that Thorp will earn Britain some pounds 900m. It did publish a brief summary at the start of the 'public consultation' in August, and the Irish government and other critics have said that even this contains 'distortions and errors'.

The nuclear company admits that the report is 'based on information provided by BNFL'. John Roques, the managing partner and chief executive of Touche Ross, is a non-executive member of BNFL's board.

Environmentalists and opposition politicians have assumed that the report is at the heart of ministerial deliberations over whether to give the go-ahead.

But Sir John Cope, a junior Treasury minister, wrote to the Campaign for Freedom of Information: 'The Treasury is not, nor has ever been, in possession of such a document.' The Department of the Environment said last night that it was in the same position as the Treasury.

A top civil servant said that some spreadsheets had been provided to officials last year for an internal review of the need for the plant, but that even these had not been seen by ministers. He added that he believed that 'there never was a report as such, just this series of figures and projections'.

But the Independent on Sunday last night traced someone outside government who had seen the report but insisted on anonymity. He said: 'It is 60 to 80 pages long. I was not allowed to be alone with it: there were two other people in the room. I was not allowed to take notes or photocopies and I was only given half an hour.

'It was based entirely on data that BNFL had provided. BNFL's numbers seemed just to have been put through a different machine.'

Maurice Frankel, director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, said yesterday: 'This is the kind of practice

restricted to secret service

documents. It is a pathetic commentary on the way the decision is being made.'

Chris Smith MP, the shadow secretary for environmental protection, said: 'It is not possible to make a sensible finding on whether Thorp can go ahead without examining the Touche Ross report. It is bad enough that the general public has not been let in on the act, but deeply worrying if ministers have not had the information.

'If BNFL is so confident that the report gives a clean bill of health to the economics of the plant, why are they keeping it so much under wraps?'

A spokesman for BNFL said yesterday that 'no one outside the company' had seen the report, which had not been published because of 'commercial confidentiality'. He added: 'I am absolutely sure that all the information that any part of the Government has asked for has been sent to them.'