But the findings of a public inquiry into the plan will intensify the debate over whether the Government should allow British Nuclear Fuels' new pounds 2.8bn Thermal Oxide Reprocessing Plant (Thorp) at Sellafield in Cumbria to start operating. A draft of the inquiry's conclusions, seen by the Independent, notes that 'the reprocessing route no longer appears to offer any immediate and significant advantages from a waste disposal point of view.'
The inquiry heard evidence about government policy from officials at the Scottish Office which appears to conflict with the determination of departments in Whitehall to open the new reprocessing plant at Sellafield.
The case for reprocessing is that it can separate out and recover potentially useful uranium and plutonium from highly radioactive waste materials also present in the spent fuel discharged from a nuclear reactor. In this view, spent nuclear fuel is not a waste material, but a potentially useful resource. But the inquiry's Reporter (equivalent to the inspector at a public inquiry in England and Wales), Mr R M Hickman, concludes: 'I find that the irradiated fuel is unlikely to be reprocessed or used for any future purpose. I find that it falls within the statutory definition of waste.'
Plans to store fuel on site were drawn up by Scottish Nuclear, which inherited financially crippling liabilities after the failure of nuclear power privatisation. To save money, Scottish Nuclear decided not to commit all its spent fuel to the new reprocessing plant at Sellafield, because British Nuclear Fuels was charging too much. Instead, the company opted for an American method of storing nuclear fuel in air-cooled vaults at Torness power station in East Lothian.
Although many safety issues were raised at the public inquiry which ended in January, Mr Hickman concludes: 'On the basis of the evidence available to me, there is no reason to conclude that any of them is likely to present an insuperable problem that would justify rejection of the application.'Reuse content