Testing at radioactive waste plant set to begin

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RADIOACTIVE testing of the thermal oxide reprocessing plant (Thorp) in Cumbria will probably begin in three weeks, the Government said yesterday.

Approval of testing is subject to consultation with local councils and other groups but the Pollution Inspectorate and Ministry of Agriculture said they were 'minded to authorise' the testing from 12 August because the radioactivity emitted would be relatively small.

British Nuclear Fuels, the state-owned company that built the controversial pounds 2.8bn plant at Sellafield, welcomed the decision as a step forward to full-scale commissioning of Thorp.

But Greenpeace is taking legal advice on whether to mount a court challenge to the Government's authorisation for the tests. BNFL will use slightly-radioactive-depleted and natural uranium, not the highly radioactive spent nuclear fuel from power stations which Thorp is designed to reprocess.

Both BNFL and the Government said yesterday's announcement would not prejudice the much more important decision on whether the plant should be allowed to go into full operation.

The uranium testing will leave parts of Thorp slightly radioactive for the first time. Environmentalists see it as a big step towards the point of no return. But BNFL says that were the Government to refuse permission for commissioning of the plant the extra costs in scrapping it due to radioactive contamination would be only pounds 250,000.