Sellafield plant faces new public inquiry

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BRITISH Nuclear Fuels' controversial pounds 1.85bn new reprocessing plant at Sellafield may face a second public inquiry before it is allowed to open - 15 years after the original Windscale Inquiry gave it the go-ahead.

The new thermal oxide reprocessing plant (Thorp) already faces extensive delays before it opens, because government regulators cannot decide on how much radioactivity it should be permitted to discharge.

HM Inspectorate of Pollution was expected to publish its draft authorisation for discharges from Thorp this Friday, but has postponed the decision. The document was originally supposed to have been made public last month.

HMIP fears that it may have to face a public inquiry - the first such hearing since the initial Radioactive Substances Act was passed in 1960. When the draft authorisation is published there will be an eight-week period of public consultations during which anyone may comment on the proposed discharges.

But public reaction to reports of the plant's opening has already been so strong that civil servants have decided to start studying options for the terms of a public inquiry. According to one source within environmental lobby groups, the Department of the Environment has already received thousands of letters 'and that is before we started a co- ordinated campaign'.

With an eye to an inquiry, officials within the pollution inspectorate have been repeatedly reworking the terms of the authorisation, and this has given rise to the delay. In parallel to building the reprocessing plant, British Nuclear Fuels has invested more than pounds 1bn in new plant and equipment at Sellafield to clean up its discharges and to remove traces of plutonium and uranium from the effluent discharged into the Irish Sea.

The company concedes that the new reprocessing plant will still increase the amount discharged but maintains that most of the increase will be of radioactive elements that do not contribute so significantly to the radiation dose to the human population. The health effects will thus be smaller, in the company's view, even though the total volumes may be larger, because more hazardous radioactive materials such as plutonium and americium will be reduced by the new plants.

One area of public concern is the quantity of radioactive krypton gas which Thorp would discharge into the air. At the Windscale Inquiry, the company promised to keep potential Kr-85 removal technologies under review. But the company now argues that the impact of the krypton will be less than had been thought and the costs of installing such equipment would outweigh the benefits. However, Thorp has been designed so that equipment to remove krypton could be backfitted.

According to Patrick Green, radiation campaigner for Friends of the Earth, government policy is that any radioactive discharges must be justified in terms of a benefit that outweighs the risk from the radiation.

He believes that this will be the central issue in any inquiry. 'If it was referred to an inquiry it would be a victory for common sense. There is no justification for reprocessing and the outcome of the inquiry should be that BNFL's application is refused.'

However, by a quirk of the legislation, if public concern does force an inquiry, its focus will be on HMIP and not directly on BNFL.

(Photograph omitted)