Rising costs that threaten reprocessing plant: Susan Watts examines whether the Thorp project at Sellafield has a future

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A FEW weeks ago, even the fiercest opponents of the nuclear industry dared not dream that the gigantic reprocessing plant at Sellafield might never open.

Now a question mark hangs over the future of Thorp, British Nuclear Fuels' Thermal Oxide Reprocessing Plant in Cumbria.

With the money spent on support facilities thrown in, Thorp has cost pounds 2.85bn to build. Two- thirds of the pounds 1.85bn spent on the central reprocessing plant has been met by advance payments from foreign customers, the rest has been provided by the state- owned BNFL.

The logic of reprocessing nuclear fuel has often found criticism. The Government's own Radioactive Waste Management Advisory Committee concluded in its 1990 report that 'there are no compelling waste management reasons to reprocess oxide fuel early, later, or at all'.

Scottish Nuclear, one of BNFL's two domestic customers, wants to limit the amount of fuel it sends for reprocessing at Thorp, because of the cost. Scottish Nuclear considers that on-site long- term storage of the radioactive fuel for at least 50 years would be cheaper.

Last month's announcement that Britain is pulling out of the European fast breeder reactor programme cast further doubt on Thorp's future. The United Kingdom's withdrawal virtually terminates the collaborative programme, involving France, Germany and Britain.

Fast breeders had long been thought to represent the next generation of nuclear energy plant. Much of the rationale for building Thorp was to reprocess fuel from conventional nuclear power stations to provide plutonium for use in fast reactors.

BNFL claims Thorp can still be profitable without servicing fast reactors, and forecasts a pounds 500m profit after 10 years of operation, even after taking into account decommissioning costs. But estimates of these costs are rising, with the latest government figure standing at pounds 900m. This is pounds 150m higher than 1990 estimates. BNFL may also yet be forced to pay tens of millions of pounds to remove Krypton-85, a radioactive gas, from Thorp's emissions.

Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Pollution is conducting an eight- week consultation period over radioactive emissions from the plant. It has already received tens of thousands of letters against it going ahead. The company fears that the consultation period, due to end in mid-January, may result in calls for a public inquiry. Whispers in Whitehall are saying 'watch this space' on Thorp where a few weeks ago they were saying 'no change'. There are strong signs that Treasury officials are combing through the economic justifications for Thorp with an ever sharpening eye.

At the end of last month, the Government announced that it would not underwrite any extra costs due to changes in government policy or to more stringent safety regulations.

Such extra costs must therefore be borne entirely by the nuclear industry. This imperilled contracts worth more than pounds 12bn between BNFL and Nuclear Electric and Scottish Nuclear. Many see this as another nail in Thorp's coffin.