Ex-ministers slate failed Sellafield plant

Two former environment ministers - Labour and Conservative - are demanding a parliamentary inquiry into the wasting of hundreds of millions of pounds by British Nuclear Fuels on a new plant that it cannot get to work.

In an extraordinary alliance, Michael Meacher and John Gummer, who oversaw the building of the plant and gave it permission to start up, plan to refer the "scandal" to the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee.

Their initiative follows the news - reported on page 3 of Business today - that BNFL has had to call in its chief competitor, the French company Cogema, to try to get its controversial £473m Mox plant to operate properly. Last May, The Independent on Sunday exclusively reported that the plant at the Sellafield nuclear complex kept breaking down and had yet to produce a single finished product.

The plant, for producing nuclear fuel of mixed uranium and plutonium, is central to the Cumbrian complex's viability. Environmentalists always opposed it as a waste of money and a terrorist threat as it could cause plutonium, which could be made into nuclear bombs, to be shipped around the world.

But BNFL insisted on building the plant. It refused to disclose how it could become viable on the grounds, ironically, that this could give an advantage to Cogema.

Tony Blair personally pushed through the go-ahead for the plant in 2001, forcing Mr Meacher to give it permission to start up despite the then environment minister's protests. The Government then wrote off the £473m cost to the taxpayer of building the plant, but it is continuing to lose a fortune.

Mr Meacher said: "This is a public scandal of enormous proportions. How many schools and hospitals could we have built with the hundreds of millions of pounds that has been wasted?"

Mr Gummer said: "I was told that the Mox plant was safe and that Britain was the best place in the world to operate it because we knew most about it. Ministers have to rely on such advice, but we were clearly misinformed."