gets green light for controversial Mox plant
By Matthew Jones in London
FT.com, October 3, 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
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.