N-plant faces long delay

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The Independent Online
A DECISION on opening the pounds 2.8bn Sellfield nuclear reprocessing plant in Cumbria is to be postponed, the Government is expected to announce, next week.

Ministerial dithering over British Nuclear Fuels Ltd's Thermal Oxide Reprocessing Plant (Thorp) could cost pounds 100m. BNFL says that every week's delay costs it pounds 2m. A decision now seems unlikely before October - nearly a year after BNFL had hoped for approval.

Government law officers have warned ministers they must allow a period of public consultation on all aspects of the plant, including its economics, implications for nuclear proliferation and whether it is needed at all. Otherwise, any decision to open could be challenged in court.

But the delay means that the decision could be held up further by being caught up in the fundamental review of the nuclear industry which the Government will launch later this year.

Ministers must also consider the possibility that in October, the High Court will decide a civil action brought against BNFL by families who lived near the existing Sellafield reprocessing plant and who allege that radioactive discharges caused their children's deaths from leukaemia. If BNFL loses, it would be difficult for the Government to open a plant that could increase emissions.

A public consultation was held earlier this year, but only on the issue of how much radioactivity the plant would be permitted to discharge. The Government is open to judicial challenge partly because BNFL commissioned a study of the economics of Thorp that has been given to the Government, but not to objectors.

Chris Smith, Labour's environment spokesman, said: 'We have been calling for some months for the report to be made available to the public. I hope the Government will do so, in the context of this new public consultation period.'

Environmental groups expect the Government to grant the shortest consultation period it believes it can get away with: only six weeks. But by the time civil servants have sifted the submissions and delivered an analysis to ministers, Parliament will have adjourned for the summer.