Government advisers warn of 'nuclear dustbin' risk: Reprocessing plant to remain idle as ministers seek more time to decide its worth

A DECISION on whether British Nuclear Fuels' controversial new pounds 2.8bn thermal oxide reprocessing plant (Thorp) at Sellafield can start work is to be delayed - probably until November - for further public consultations to see whether it is really needed, the Government announced yesterday.

The plant in Cumbria could make Britain the world's nuclear dustbin, according to an assessment by the Government's own advisers, released yesterday. Hundreds of tons of plutonium- contaminated waste from abroad may have to be buried here rather than be shipped back - even though British Nuclear Fuels has not shown that the waste can be safely disposed of - a report by the Radioactive Waste Management Advisory Committee warns.

The Government appears split over the fate of Thorp. In a written parliamentary reply, John Gummer, the Secretary of State for the Environment, yesterday announced that he and Gillian Shephard, the Minister of Agriculture, had to consider wider issues, such as Thorp's economics and the dangers of nuclear weapons proliferation, before deciding if it should go ahead. However, Tim Eggar, Minister for Energy, told the Commons yesterday that the plant was economic and that there were no worries over nuclear proliferation.

The Radioactive Waste Management Advisory Committee warns that the plans are 'at variance with government policy on other wastes'. It virtually accuses BNFL of selective presentation of the safety evidence - of putting forward only the most favourable analysis.

The committee's report, which went to ministers last October, has infuriated BNFL and the Department of Trade and Industry, which tried to suppress its publication. However, copies were yesterday placed in the House of Commons library.

The company does not intend to return all the radioactive waste generated by Thorp. Instead of giving back to its customers the large volumes of plutonium-contaminated waste, it would like to 'substitute' a far smaller volume of highly radioactive material, calculated to be equivalent in terms of radioactivity. BNFL would then bury the foreign plutonium-contaminated waste in a repository deep underground near Sellafield.

But the report reveals that BNFL has not agreed with its customers how the substitution should be calculated. The first consignment of highly radioactive waste is due to be returned to Japan by 1996. 'The success of substitution is dependent on customers accepting high-level waste,' the committee warns.

The report will be one of the items considered during the new consultation period announced yesterday. Within a month, the Government will publish a formal justification for operating the plant. There will then be a 10-week consultation period after which Mr Gummer and Mrs Shephard will consider the public response. Officials do not expect a decision until November.

Thorp was completed in March 1992 and BNFL hoped to start commissioning it last October by putting in low-radioactivity uranium. The company estimates that the delay is costing it pounds 2m a week, and it warned this month that it would have to lay off 1,700 staff at Sellafield if there were further delays.

Environmental lobby groups welcomed the delay but questioned whether the consultations would be genuine, considering that six Cabinet ministers, including John Major, endorsed the plant in an amendment to a Commons motion yesterday. The groups asked how Mr Gummer could counter such strong support from fellow ministers.

Peter Melchett, executive director of Greenpeace, said: 'Mr Gummer is fudging the issue. He should come clean and tell us if he will hold a full and independent public inquiry, which we believe he is legally bound to do.' Dr Pat Green, radiation spokesman for Friends of the Earth, called on the Government to publish a confidential report on Thorp's economics.

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