Thorp `at risk' after start-up fiasco

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SELLAFIELD's Thorp reprocessing plant is still not working - a year after ministers gave it permission to start up.

Not a single ounce of spent nuclear fuel has been reprocessed, although British Nuclear Fuels, which runs the plant, originally estimated that 180 tons would be dealt with in the first 14 months.

Ministers last week refused to answer a parliamentary question on the performance of the plant. They are deeply embarrassed by the failure, caused by unexpected technical problems, not least because they were specifically warned by their officials that this might happen. Top civil servants now say that the fiasco puts the plant's future at risk.

Last year BNFL announced that any delay in putting the plant into active operation would cost it £2m a week and damage its commercial reputation.

John Gummer, Secretary of State for the Environment, and the then agriculture minister, Gillian Shephard, gave the go-ahead to the £2.8bn plant a year ago last week, after holding up approval for a year while they decided whether to subject it to a public inquiry. Environmentalists said it would increase radioactive pollution and fail to make money, claims vigorously denied by BNFL.

In March - after a last-minute bid in the High Court by Greenpeace and Lancashire County Council to stop the start-up - the firm fed the first 28 tons of spent fuel into the plant to be separated into plutonium, uranium and nuclear waste.

BNFL had previously told the High Court that this process would only take a month. But nine months later the fuel is still only about halfway through the process. This has made a mockery of estimates given by the firm to HM Inspectorate of Pollution.

Mr John Large, an independent nuclear expert, says that the firm has hit serious technical difficulties in the area where the spent fuel is dissolved before being split into its component parts. BNFL will only admit to "one or two problems".

Environmentalists are quick to point out the irony of the situation. For BNFL argued against holding a public inquiry on the grounds that any delay would cause "serious financial consequences in both the long and the short term".

Mr Alvin Shuttleworth, the company secretary, told the High Court: "For every week that active operations are delayed . . . I am informed that BNFL will incur additional costs of £2m."

He also said that "any delay of prolonged duration to Thorp could have potentially damaging consequences on overseas' investors confidence", particularly the Japanese utilities on which the plant depends for its profitability. The firm attacked both environmentalists and HMIP on these grounds for delaying ministerial approval.

A senior government official said last week: "It is quite extraordinary that BNFL have not yet managed to make the place work after all that fuss. The longer it takes to get it going, the more likely it is that overseas customers will flake off and make Thorp unprofitable."

Trade and Industry ministers refused to answer a parliamentary question from Labour MP Llew Smith, asking how much fuel had been reprocessed.

The DoE claimed that it "had no way of knowing" whether any fuel had been fully treated, even though it owns all but one of the shares in BNFL.

The company admitted that no reprocessing had yet been completed, but said: "This plant is not experiencing any production problems of any significance. It has always been the intention to commence active commissioning in a slow and measured way."

But Bridget Woodman, Greenpeace's anti-nuclear campaigner, said: "Either there has been a huge technical cock-up or BNFL lied to the High Court and to ministers."