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Wednesday, 3 October, 2001, 15:31 GMT 16:31 UK
Nuclear plant gets go-ahead
Critics doubt there is a market for Mox
Sellafield's new mixed oxide (Mox) plant has been given the commercial go-ahead despite environmentalists' protests.

They say the decision is unlawful and fear that the UK plant will become a target for terrorists.

Environment Secretary Margaret Beckett's decision on the 460m fuel fabrication facility in Cumbria will secure its immediate future.

I'm delighted for the people at BNFL who've put in a lot of work of the years to get us to this point

Norman Askew, BNFL chief executive
The plant processes Mox, a blend of plutonium and uranium that has been extracted from the spent fuel rods already "burnt" in reactors.

The nuclear industry believes that recycling the used fuel and turning it into Mox can help reduce the world's growing stockpile of plutonium, one of the most toxic substances known to humankind.

The plant was completed in 1996, but permission for commercial operation was withheld because of concerns over finances and data falsification.

But critics fear in the wake of the US atrocities, terrorists may attempt to intercept or blow up shipments of Mox.

BNFL delight

They believe it would be safer to leave the plutonium in spent fuel and keep it in storage tanks, rather than transport it around the world with the potential for an accident.

But Norman Askew, chief executive of British Nuclear Fuels Limited (BNFL), the site's operators, expressed delight at the news that will be crucial to the future of his company.

The approval was announced on the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) website, and confirmed by the Environment Secretary, Margaret Beckett, who was in Brighton for the Labour Party conference.

Mox has been made at Sellafield since 1993
Mrs Beckett said she and the Health Secretary Alan Milburn thought the manufacture of Mox fuel "is justified" in line with European Community law.

Mr Askew said: "I'm delighted for the people at BNFL who've put in a lot of work over the years to get us to this point, and I'm delighted for our customers," he told the BBC.

"It's very good news for them because they've supported us through this period and are ready to do business with us."

'Management failures'

BNFL was at the centre of a major international row last year when then chief executive John Taylor was forced to resign following a damning report from the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate.

The agency accused the company of "systematic management failures", which allowed data on the quality of Mox fuel destined for Japan to be falsified.

The row was a severe blow to the commercial standing of BNFL and, as a result, several countries stopped sending spent fuel to Sellafield for reprocessing.

Commentators at the time doubted whether the new plant would have a viable commercial future - even if government approval was obtained.

Terror concern

But consultants say the plant's operation will be worth 150m to the UK over its lifetime. The company also points to the feedback that came from five consultations on the plant's future. Of the 9,000 responses received, 7,000 supported the facility's approval, BNFL said.

Graphic BBC
The green lobby argues that nuclear power has no future - it accuses Sellafield of polluting the Irish Sea - and that Mox creates new environmental and security risks.

Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace slammed Wednesday's decision, claiming it was "unlawful".

Greenpeace said it was dangerously irresponsible to launch an expansion of the international plutonium trade when the threat from terrorists was still unknown and out of control.

Charles Secrett, director of Friends of the Earth, said the decision beggared belief.

"Yesterday, Tony Blair talked of the need for international action to build a safer global community. Today, his government does the reverse. This isn't joined-up government. It's unhinged government."

Green Party MEP Nuala Ahern, from Leinster, Ireland, denounced the decision as "inviting terrorists to go nuclear".

"The centre of this insanity is Sellafield, from where hundreds of shipments of the deadly nuclear explosive plutonium are about to be sent thousands of miles across the high seas," she said.

"We are now all in grave danger from radiological sabotage, or an attack on shipments from Sellafield. Producing Mox at Sellafield will make the world a less safe place."

BNFL's Norman Askew
"The decision is good news for our customers"
Mark Johnston, Greenpeace
"The government will have to defend this decision in the High Court"
The BBC's Fergus Walsh
"It will safeguard 300 jobs at the planet"
See also:

28 Feb 00 | UK
Nuclear chief quits
11 Jul 00 | UK
Mox: The voyage home
03 Oct 01 | England
Mox prompts mixed reaction
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