Geoffrey Lean: The nuclear plant that should never have been constructed

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The Independent Online

It was 30 years ago that I first came across Thorp, then merely a plan for a new plant at what was to become the highly controversial Sellafield nuclear complex. For the past three decades I have watched in growing bewilderment as time and time again it has apparently defied the law of gravity.

It was 30 years ago that I first came across Thorp, then merely a plan for a new plant at what was to become the highly controversial Sellafield nuclear complex. For the past three decades I have watched in growing bewilderment as time and time again it has apparently defied the law of gravity.

It pulled off its first escapologist's stunt when it survived what was then Britain's longest public inquiry in 1977. By common consent, the environmental groups, such as Friends of the Earth, that were arguing for a 10-year delay before any decision was taken to build it, won the arguments hands down, but the plant was still approved.

They still won a moral victory, for it was a decade before the plant was actually constructed. By the time it was ready to operate in 1994, it was already an anachronism. Conditions had changed and any need for it had long disappeared. But ministers still allowed it to start up.

They did so on the basis of a much-quoted report on its economic justification by the accountancy firm Touche Ross. All attempts to get the report made public failed. Then it transpired, four years later, that the report had never actually existed.

The Labour government came to power pledged to hold an inquiry into the plant. But, once in Downing Street, Tony Blair blocked it.

Now it seems that its death-defying feats may finally be coming to an end. For the cost of rehabilitating the plant after the latest accident may simply be too great to justify its continuing existence. It is due to close anyway in 2012.

Official investigations are under way and senior government sources say that "hard decisions" will have to be made about the cost and safety of the plant when they are completed. Ministers and the new Nuclear Decommissioning Authority are pointedly avoiding giving assurances about its future.

Given its charmed history - and the entrenched support it still receives from the Department of Trade and Industry - an obituary is still premature. But it does seem that, at long last, it finally may be running out of lives.

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