October 2001

BNFL gets green light for controversial Mox plant

By Matthew Jones in London
, October 3, 2001

[Posted 05/10/2001]

The UK government on Wednesday gave the go-ahead for British Nuclear Fuels to start operations at a controversial radioactive fuel recycling plant, despite continuing security concerns following the September 11 terrorist attacks.

The move brings to an end four years of public debate about the economic viability of the plant, already built at Sellafield in Cumbria, which will combine plutonium from reprocessed fuel into mixed oxide (Mox) fuel for use in reactors.

It is a fillip for BNFL's efforts to rebuild its reputation following a damaging data falsification scandal involving Mox fuel in 1999.

Norman Askew, BNFL's chief executive, said he was "delighted" by the decision.

"This plant is the solution to the problem of plutonium not the cause of it," he added.

However, anti-nuclear campaigners warned that plutonium contained within the recycled fuel could fall into criminal hands and be used to manufacture crude atomic weapons.

They also claimed the decision might be unlawful because the economic benefits had not been shown to outweigh the health and environmental impacts of the scheme.

The Oxford Research Group, an anti-proliferation think tank, said a "second-year undergraduate" would be able to separate plutonium from the Mox fuel to fabricate nuclear explosives.

Greenpeace, the environmental campaign group, said the decision ignored calls earlier this week by Kofi Annan, United Nations secretary general, for governments to work together to reduce the risks of terror groups obtaining atomic weapons and was "an affront to the international community".

Friends of the Earth said it was taking legal advice in conjunction with Greenpeace to determine whether the approval could be challenged in court.

"This is a political decision which doesn't make economic or environmental sense," said Charles Secrett, FoE director.

An independent study commissioned by the government earlier this year and produced by Arthur D Little, the consultants, found the plant would have a net economic benefit of more than £200m ($292m) at today's prices if opened, compared with a loss of £58m if permission were refused.

Greenpeace and FoE argue this does not take into account the £470m already spent on the project, which the government asked to be treated as a sunk cost.

The decision to give the go-ahead was taken jointly by Margaret Beckett, secretary of state for environment, food and rural affairs, and Alan Milburn, secretary of state for health.

An official from the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said about 7,000 responses in favour of the plant had been received during five public consultations compared with 2,000 against. He added that current advice from government agencies responsible for nuclear security and proliferation was that Mox manufacture and transport presented "negligible" security risks.

The Mox plant will directly employ more than 300 people but 1,800 jobs are thought to be indirectly linked to the plant, mainly in Cumbria. Nuclear experts had warned that a decision against the opening could also have jeopardised BNFL's reprocessing operations at its £1.85bn Thorp plant.

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