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Thursday, 15 November, 2001, 17:24 GMT
Sellafield saved - for now
Nuclear weapons detonation   AP
Many people fear the links between nuclear weapons and peaceful uses of atomic power
Alex Kirby

The High Court in London has rejected an attempt by environmental campaigners to prevent a UK nuclear reprocessing plant starting work.

The judgement sounds like good news for the nuclear industry. The plant, the mixed oxide (Mox) fuel facility at Sellafield in north-west England, is to start up soon.

Ironically, when it finally does, it could make it harder for the industry to survive. The plant has been built by British Nuclear Fuels (BNFL), which hopes to commission it on 20 December.

The immediate argument over the Mox plant has centred on what its critics see as its potential to help terrorists.

Fears dismissed

Mox fuel is made of oxides of both uranium and plutonium, and there are fears that terrorists could intercept it to make crude nuclear devices.

BNFL and the UK Government both say that this is only a very remote possibility.

Sizewell reactor   BBC
Civilian reactors could play a role
But the Royal Society - the UK's national science academy - and the US Government's Office of Arms Control and Non-proliferation say it could be done relatively easily.

In another scarcely-veiled criticism, British Energy, which owns and operates eight nuclear power stations in the UK, has called in effect for the Mox plant to remain mothballed.

In evidence to a Parliamentary select committee, the company said there should be an immediate moratorium on the reprocessing of spent fuel at Sellafield from its advanced gas-cooled (AGR) reactors.

It said the reprocessing was uneconomic, and also added to the UK's plutonium stockpile. British Energy's evidence is damning for BNFL, which is trying to drum up enough foreign business to keep the Mox plant busy.

One industry source told BBC News Online: "After the scandal over the falsification of data, BNFL has got a hard job to win back its Japanese markets. "And its other big potential customer, Germany, is fraught with political difficulties."

Nuclear advocates

But beyond the vital arguments over security lies the question of the nuclear industry's future. Opposition to nuclear power remains strong across much of Europe and North America.

Yet some respected voices now argue that it may have a role to play, at least for a time.

BNFL Sellafield plant   BBC
Critics say reprocessing fuel is unnecessary
Professor James Lovelock is known for the Gaia Hypothesis, his theory that that the global ecosystem sustains and regulates itself like a biological organism.

Three months ago he said: "Nuclear is the only practical energy source that we could apply in time to offset the threat from accumulating greenhouse gases.

"Greens could look on the use of nuclear power as a temporary bandage to be used until the harm from carbon burning has been remedied."

In 1999, the British environmental biologist Sir Frederick Holliday wrote: "My belief is that all the people of the world need abundant energy at reasonable costs.

"My science tells me that without nuclear power the long-term future of global ecosystems is at risk."

One reason why many people distrust nuclear power is because they believe it is impossible to separate civil reactors from weapons-grade fissile material. If the industry could make that distinction transparent, it might win readier acceptance.

But the High Court ruling will not distinguish atoms for peace from nuclear deterrence. In many minds, it will blur the distinction more than ever.

See also:

08 Nov 01 | UK
Q&A: Sellafield's Mox plant
28 Mar 01 | Sci/Tech
Nuclear waste: A long-lived legacy
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