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Thorp plant 'likely to be approved': Ministers inclined to allow pounds 2.8bn nuclear reprocessing site to open

THE GOVERNMENT yesterday gave its strongest signal to date that it will give the go-ahead to British Nuclear Fuels' controversial pounds 2.8bn thermal oxide reprocessing plant (Thorp) in Cumbria.

At the start of a second round of public consultations over the plant, officials said environment and agriculture ministers were now 'minded' to give Thorp the green light.

A statement of government policy, also published yesterday, concludes: 'A positive case for the operation of Thorp has been well made.' This document, along with two papers from BNFL on the environmental and economic issues surrounding the plant, is to form the basis for public comment up to the deadline on 4 October.

The officials said ministers' minds 'remain open', but added that they were now inclined to allow the plant to open.

Labour's environment spokesman, Chris Smith, condemned the consultations as 'a facade' designed to avoid legal difficulties: 'What is the point of consulting if you have already made up your mind?'

He said the public was being deprived of information and urged the Government to make BNFL publish a study of Thorp's economics.

The BNFL documents include no clear comparison of the cost of dry storage of nuclear waste and the cost of reprocessing. Nor is there any assessment of the potential revenue for BNFL if it offered to store customers' radioactive waste. In 1990, the Government's radioactive waste management advisory committee concluded there were 'no compelling waste management reasons for reprocessing oxide fuel early, later or at all'.

In June, the Government appeared split over Thorp. Tim Eggar, Minister for Energy, said the plant was economic and there were no worries over nuclear weapons proliferation. However, John Gummer, the Secretary of State for the Environment, said he and Gillian Shephard, the Minister of Agriculture, had to consider wider issues such as economics and the danger of nuclear proliferation.

Yesterday, officials said the ministers had decided such wider issues were 'not relevant'. It was also confirmed that ministers do not plan to seek an independent audit of BNFL's economic justification for Thorp.

The Government's final decision is not expected before Christmas, depending on the volume of comments received between now and October. Only then will ministers decide whether to accede to demands for a public inquiry.

Dr Patrick Green, radiation spokesman for Friends of the Earth, said yesterday: 'The sound of minds closing echoes around Whitehall.' Greenpeace is considering legal steps to ensure the consultation is 'more than just a sham'. It may seek a judicial review if there is no public inquiry.

Thorp was completed in March last year. BNFL claims the delay in opening the plant is costing it pounds 2m a week and is behind the loss of 3,200 jobs.