UK government OK operation of Sellafield MOX plant

After five public consultations over four yielding 9000 responses, the UK government announced Wednesday that manufacture of mixed oxide (MOX) fuel can go ahead at the BNFL plant at Sellafield, Cumbria.

The announcement was welcomed by BNFL chief executive, Norman Askew who said, “I’m highly delighted with today’s decision by the Government. Our customers have been extremely patient with us and we can now get on with the business of manufacturing fuel for them and repay the commitment that they have shown us.”

The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), Margaret Beckett, and the Secretary of State for Health, Alan Milburn, made the decision having considered both the financial viability of the operation and the safety aspects. They concluded that, if Sellafield was allowed to operate, it would result in a financial benefit with a “net present value” of over à‚£150m to the UK over its lifetime.

Doubts over the value of the plant were increased following the loss of vital business from the Japanese nuclear industry. Japan faces strong environmental objections to the movement of nuclear materials. The prospect of contracts with Japan further diminished following revelations of data falsification at Sellafield in September 1999. This led to BNFL having to submit a revised economic case for the operation of the MOX plant

BNFL insist that it already has enough business contracted or reserved to achieve a break-even position and evidence of further demand. Customers want to recycle their plutonium separated during reprocessing into MOX fuel for use in their reactors, said the company.

The timing of the licensing has raised eyebrows as security in nuclear installations and restrictions on the movement of radioactive materials has been tightened worldwide in the wake of last month’s terrorist activity. 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 (FoE) 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.

Before it can commence operation, BNFL will need to obtain the consent of the Health and Safety Executive for plutonium commissioning at the Sellafield site.

Of the 9000 responses under the consultation process, 7000 were in favour of the plant compared with 2000 against. A spokesman for Defra said 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 1800 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 ௿½1.85bn Thorp plant.

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