Thorp approved with tighter discharge limit: Gummer rules out public inquiry into pounds 2.8bn nuclear reprocessing plant at Sellafield

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THE GOVERNMENT yesterday gave its blessing to British Nuclear Fuel's new pounds 2.8bn thermal oxide reprocessing plant (Thorp) at Sellafield in West Cumbria. But a carefully worded statement to the House of Commons by John Gummer, the Secretary of State for the Environment, left several issues still unresolved.

Speaking on behalf of the Department of the Environment and the Ministry of Agriculture, Mr Gummer announced that he was tightening the limits on the amount of radioactivity which Thorp could discharge to the environment.

Thorp will not now start operating until early next year, pending a 28-day delay during which BNFL can appeal against the new limits. Even when Thorp does start, all that will happen is that fuel will be moved from one storage pond to another, while the company spends a further 30 days checking instruments and equipment.

Yesterday's statement, which marks the conclusion of a saga dating back to the mid-1970s, came after a second round of public consultations in which the Government received 42,500 responses, 63 per cent of them opposing Thorp. Although nearly 30 per cent of individual respondents and 85 local authorities had called for a public inquiry into the project, Mr Gummer rejected this option yesterday. He concluded that 'there is a sufficient balance of advantage in favour of the operation of Thorp'. The discharges 'would not lead to unacceptable risks to human health or the environment', he said.

The 'degree of furtiveness' which shrouded the way the Government reached its decision was attacked in a muted statement by Chris Smith, Labour's environment spokesman. Mr Smith stopped short however of opposing the Government's decision, nor did he call for a public inquiry. That demand came from Tony Benn who as energy minister in 1978 had been responsible for starting the Thorp project.

John Guinness, the chairman of British Nuclear Fuels, said: 'Today's decision is good news for the Thorp workforce, it's good news for BNFL, and it's good news for Britain. It is a major step forward in allowing us to provide a first-class service to our customers and earn billions of pounds of valuable overseas revenue for the UK.'

Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth yesterday said that they would immediately challenge yesterday's decision in the courts.

More significant for the long-term future of the plant, however, is that British Nuclear Fuels has still not clinched a pounds 13bn deal with its main British customer, Nuclear Electric, 18 months after contracts were supposed to have been signed.

Greenpeace will apply for a judicial review of the Government's decision in the English courts. The organisation is expected to argue that a public inquiry ought to have been held into plans to open the plant.

Friends of the Earth will take Ioannis Paleokassis, the European Commissioner responsible for the environment and nuclear safety, to the European Court of Justice, alleging that the commission has failed to enforce the European Union's nuclear safety legislation.

Nuclear industry insiders say that yesterday's decision will not speed up the pounds 13bn deal with Nuclear Electric and that although BNFL made a new offer last week, negotiations are expected to drag on for some time to come. The entire package involves the supply of fresh fuel and reprocessing services for the first-generation Magnox reactors as well as reprocessing of fuel at Thorp.

(Photograph omitted)