US fears over Thorp 'insanity'

Click to follow
The Independent Online
SENIOR politicians in the United States are pressing for congressional hearings into the threats to world security posed by the Thorp reprocessing plant, following a report in the Independent on Sunday.

They are also threatening to cut back co-operation with Britain over nuclear weapons, as frustration grows in the US over the effects on nuclear proliferation of the pounds 2.8bn Sellafield plant. A Pentagon study has concluded that Thorp could put nations 'within days' of acquiring a nuclear bomb.

British ministers are agonising over whether to give the plant the go-ahead. The Secretary of State for the Environment, John Gummer, and the Secretary of State for Agriculture, Gillian Shephard - the Cabinet ministers responsible for taking the decision on Thorp - met three times in the last fortnight to discuss it and further meetings are due to be held this week. Officials say that the ministers are taking an unusual amount of care over the judgement, one of the most controversial they will have to make during this Parliament, though they are expected to give the plant the go-ahead.

The Independent on Sunday reported two weeks ago that British Nuclear Fuels, which runs Sellafield, hopes to send South Korea plutonium mixed with uranium as nuclear fuel.

Two separate congressional committees - the Armed Services Committee and the Joint Economic Committee - are to consider applications from Democratic members to hold hearings on Thorp.

Oregon Congresswoman Elizabeth Furse, who is approaching the Armed Services Committee - on which she serves - notes that her father and her grandmother were British admirals (her grandmother founded the WRNS). She told Congress: 'The British will soon open a plant which will dump 60 tons of new plutonium into a world which cannot work out what to do with what it has.'

'I see from the British press that company managers from the Thorp plant are looking forward to selling plutonium to South Korea, and South Korean sources are saying that they will only buy this fuel if North Korea builds a nuclear weapon. This is simply madness.'

Congressman Mike Kopetski, a fellow Oregon Democrat, echoed her view of the plans to send plutonium to South Korea and added: 'Why is it in the interest of the United States to keep the British in the nuclear weapons business when they clearly do not support stopping nuclear weapons proliferation?'

Californian Congressman Pete Stark, a prominent member of the Joint Economic Committee, asked it to 'convene an immediate hearing' on the commercial use of plutonium and the start-up of Thorp. He said this would 'highlight the economic absurdity of large-scale commercial plutonium production' and 'show that this 'economic folly is made national security insanity because of the dangers of plutonium diversion and theft at the hands of terrorists and rogue states'.

British Nuclear Fuels said, in a written statement to the Independent on Sunday: 'Britain is not negotiating to supply South Korea with plutonium in any form.'

But a spokeswoman later admitted that the company and South Korea were discussing 'fuel supply services for their reactors and waste management services, which may include reprocessing'. She confirmed that plutonium extracted from reprocessed fuel belonged to the country that provided it and, under present policy, is returned to it.

Leading article, page 20