Brown says agency broke law on waste

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A row has broken out between government departments concerning allegations that a new radioactive waste licence at Britain's nuclear weapons factory at Aldermaston is potentially illegal.

A row has broken out between government departments concerning allegations that a new radioactive waste licence at Britain's nuclear weapons factory at Aldermaston is potentially illegal.

The dispute has raised fears within Whitehall that the courts could suspend the licence, forcing the Ministry of Defence to take control of Aldermaston from the private sector managers who run the Berkshire plant, or even temporarily stop warhead production.

Confidential memos leaked to The Independent reveal that Nick Brown, the Minister for Agriculture, believes the Environment Agency broke the law when it issued the new licence in March because it failed to properly consult him.

The agency believes the licence was justified partly because it imposed strict limits on Aldermaston's release of waste liquids and gases contaminated by tritium, uranium and plutonium into the air and groundwater. The plant must also phase out all radioactive discharges into the Thames and a local sewage works.

But Mr Brown claims the agency breached its obligations to consult both agriculture and environment ministers, under the Environment Act 1995, the Radioactive Substances Act 1993, and the ministerial guidance issued to the agency in 1996.

The agency faces a judicial review of its decision at the Royal Courts of Justice in London next month. In a letter sent to the Environment minister Michael Meacher, Mr Brown has accused his colleague of agreeing to the new licence "without seeking my opinion".

In a final draft, sent on 16 March, he claimed this meant "the role of ministers in the process of issuing the certificates may be unlawful. We can not afford to lay ourselves open to a challenge in the courts and this risk now appears to have increased significantly."

Another memo dated 29 March from officials in the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, discloses Mr Brown was also angry over a second procedural irregularity and refused Mr Meacher's peace overtures to resolve the dispute.

Under the rules, Aldermaston's licence should not have been issued while Mr Brown and Mr Meacher were considering hundreds of public requests to review, or "call in", its application. The memo states Mr Brown was "unhappy" about this, and wrote to Mr Meacher indicating "his view that due to the procedural defect in issuing the authorisations, they could be invalid."

The row now involves Alan Milburn, the Secretary of State for Health, who took over Mr Brown's responsibility for radioactivity in foodstuffs when the Food Standards Agency was set up, under Department of Health control, on 1 April.

Mr Meacher has tried but so far failed to get Mr Milburn to sign a "letter of comfort" giving his retrospective support for the Environment Agency's actions. A Health spokeswoman said: "This issue is still being considered very carefully."

This dispute will be the focus of a three-day hearing, at the Royal Courts of Justice next month, of an action by Nuclear Action Group, based in Berkshire. Among five other complaints it claims the agency acted unlawfully by failing to consider the general legal status of nuclear weapons and of the Aldermaston plant.

The crisis arose because the Environment Agency had to meet a deadline for issuing a new licence before April, when the Aldermaston's management was handed over to a new operator, a joint venture between British Nuclear Fuels (BNFL), the US defence giant Lockheed Martin and Serco.

The agency believes it acted correctly because of the over-riding public interest to ensure radioactive discharges were controlled by an independent agency rather than by the MoD, which can operate under Crown Immunity, and because the new licence is significantly stricter than the previous authorisation, better protecting the environment.

A Tory spokeswoman said yesterday: "Labour are meant to be all about joined-up government, but they're fighting each other over one issue after another. This proves the left hand doesn't know what the right hand is doing."