Last legal attempt to block Thorp fails: Reprocessing to start within weeks Nuclear fuel reprocessing to start

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THE POINT of no return for the pounds 2.8bn Thorp complex is about to be crossed after Greenpeace's final attempt to halt its operations failed in the High Court yesterday.

British Nuclear Fuels, owner of the nuclear reprocessing plant, will fragment Thorp's first consignment of highly radioactive fuel pins at Sellafield, Cumbria, probably by the end of the month. Once it does, the complex will become contaminated and highly expensive to decommission.

Mr Justice Potts rejected an application by Greenpeace and Lancashire County Council for a ruling that the Secretary of State for the Environment, John Gummer, and the Minister of Agriculture, Gillian Shephard, acted unreasonably and irrationally in authorising radioactive emissions from the plant without first holding a public inquiry.

The judge pointed out that nearly 12,300 groups and individuals and more than 80 local councils had called for a public inquiry. 'It may be thought that a minister sensible to the scale of representations . . . and the desirability of allaying public anxiety would have directed an inquiry,' he said.

But Parliament had passed legislation which gave the Secretary of State for the Environment discretion over whether to call an inquiry. And in reaching his decision, Mr Gummer had complied fully with the law. 'He did not err in law . . . this decision was not irrational,' the judge said.

Peter Melchett, executive director of Greenpeace, said it would not be taking further legal action. 'I'm bitterly disappointed that we didn't manage to persuade the judge overall that what we were saying was right,' he said.

David Bonser, head of BNFL's Thorp division, said: 'This is great news for us and for 5,500 good, long-term jobs at Thorp. We've been trying to manage a very major international business in the face of a lot of uncertainty.'

The judge made no order for costs - so Greenpeace, BNFL and the Department of the Environment each has to meet its own legal costs (Greenpeace will pay Lancashire's). The decision saved the environmental group about pounds 200,000, because it is usual for a failed applicant to pay the costs of the respondent.

The judge ruled that the ministers had complied fully with legislation in consulting the public on the authorisations for radioactive emissions and in assessing the environmental impact Thorp's emissions would cause.

But they were wrong to conclude that British and European legislation did not compel them to justify Thorp's operations in terms of the net benefits to the economy and society compared to its costs.

However, even if they did not consider themselves legally bound to do so, 'the ministers (had) carried out a careful process of weighing the benefits against the detriments'.

Thorp, the Thermal Oxide Reprocessing Plant, was completed two years ago this month. BNFL claims each week of delay has cost it pounds 2m. The plant is intended to recover uranium and plutonium from the spent fuel discharged from nuclear power stations.

BNFL expects to make a profit of pounds 500m from the first 10 years of the plant's operations. It has secured orders worth pounds 9bn from Japan, West Germany and Europe and the first 10 years of the plant's capacity are taken up.