Ministers ready to back pounds 2.8bn Thorp plant: Nuclear recycling project to go ahead despite strong opposition. Colin Brown reports

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MINISTERS are expected to announce the go-ahead for the controversial Thorp project today, allowing the recycling of imported nuclear waste at the plant in Sellafield, Cumbria.

John Gummer, Secretary of State for Environment, and Gillian Shephard, Minister of Agriculture, are ready to give operating approval to the Thermal Oxide Reprocessing Plant in the face of protests from the environmental lobby and rumblings of discontent from the Clinton administration about the threat of nuclear proliferation.

A ministerial source said: 'They are acting in a quasi-judicial capacity and have had to keep to the letter of the law. The decision was taken in principle in the summer, but we have been waiting for the end of the consultation period.'

Greenpeace has warned it will seek court action to delay the decision until a public inquiry has been held. But ministers are convinced the legal requirements have been fulfilled and approval can be given.

The Foreign Office expressed concern at the risk of nuclear proliferation from the fuel produced by the plant for overseas customers, and that warning was reinforced by the US administration, which was deeply worried by the nuclear threat posed by North Korea.

Defence sources have confirmed fears that the North Koreans have developed a missile with 'a worryingly long range'.

The Department of Trade and Industry supported a decision to go ahead and warned that if it was delayed for a public inquiry, customers, particularly the Japanese and Germans, would would take their business to the French.

The decision has been delayed until the completion of a consultation period. Ministers were anxious to avoid a successful challenge in court over the failure to consult properly. There has been criticism that the Government has failed to commission an independent audit of the projections by BNFL, which warned it would lose pounds 900m, if Thorp was abandoned.

Since the Labour government approved the building of the pounds 2.8bn plant, reprocessing of nuclear fuel rods has become less attractive; some potential customers, including Scottish Nuclear, believe they may be able to save millions in switching to dry storage of spent nuclear fuel rods. Ministers have been concerned about the plant's viability. But they appear to have accepted advice that it would be more expensive to stop than to go-ahead with production at the plant.

Tim Eggar, the Minister for Energy, confirmed ministerial enthusiasm for privatisation, as reported in the Independent. He told a conference that he believed the long-term future of the nuclear industry must be in the private sector and the question was not 'whether, but how and when it gets there'.