Minister admits total failure of Sellafield 'MOX' plant

Geoffrey Lean
Sunday 09 March 2008 01:00
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It was a deeply embarrassing moment for the Government, though it passed almost without notice.

Late last month, the Energy Minister, Malcolm Wicks, had to admit to one of the most comprehensive and catastrophic failures in British industrial history – and one that has led directly to the plans to ship weapons-ready plutonium to France.

Answering a question from Dai Davies, the independent MP for Blaenau Gwent, Mr Wicks confessed that a new plant at Sellafield, built amid great controversy at a cost of £473m, had comprehensively failed to work. Originally designed to produce 120 tons a year of "mixed oxide" (MOX) nuclear fuel – made of plutonium and uranium separated from nuclear waste by reprocessing – it had in fact managed only 5.3 tons in five years of operation.

The admission constituted a wholescale vindication for critics, including The Independent on Sunday, who have long denounced the plant as a waste of money based on unproven technology, which could also pose a terrorist risk.

After the assault on the World Trade Center in September 2001, which came just before the plant was given approval to start operations, the then environment minister, Michael Meacher, asked for information on the opportunities it afforded terrorists after reading an article in The Independent on Sunday. But only a cursory review was carried out by the Office for Civilian Nuclear Security, which denied any threat in terms identical to those used by British Nuclear Fuels.

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