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Thursday, 8 November, 2001, 10:49 GMT
Q&A: Sellafield's Mox plant

One legal challenge has been lost to block the UK's decision to allow the Mox plant at Sellafield to open, but with others outstanding, BBC News Online looks at the issues at stake.

What is Mox?

Mox (mixed oxide) is a way of re-using otherwise useless plutonium - a small part of what is left over when waste nuclear fuel is reprocessed.

The plutonium can be combined with uranium and turned into a new fuel source.

And it is an extremely powerful source of electricity. Each six-gram pellet holds the same energy as a tonne of coal.

British Nuclear Fuel (BNFL) - the government-controlled firm that runs the Sellafield plant - says three pellets can provide a family's needs for an entire year, and the process also reduces the amount of highly toxic radioactive waste that must be stored.

Where is Mox produced?

Not at Sellafield - yet. The Mox plant there was completed in 1996, but has yet to start work, mired as it is in controversy.

The first consultation process began in February 1997. Another was launched in 1998 and it was not until the following year that the government announced the 470m plant could start work.

But BNFL was then caught up in controversy over its safety culture and the embarrassing falsification of documents for a shipment to Japan.

Fresh doubts over the reputation and economic potential of Sellafield put Mox back on hold.

In October 2001, Environment Secretary Margaret Beckett finally gave the go-ahead for the plant, a decision which was immediately subject to calls for a judicial review.

Who is against the plant?

Environmental groups Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth joined forces to challenge the government's decision in the High Court.

But Mr Justice Collins, sitting in London's High Court, ruled the Government had made "no error of law" in granting approval.

The campaigners claimed the plant was unnecessary, not economically viable, and could make it easier for terrorists to obtain nuclear materials.

They are against the increase in nuclear power, arguing for sustainable and environmentally friendly alternatives.

The Irish Government is also against the plant, arguing that building it in Cumbria on the Irish Sea coast broke international laws on sea pollution.

Ireland has begun a challenge to ask the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea to order an immediate suspension of the plant's authorisation.

Norway is also reported to be considering legal action, again citing water pollution.

Could terrorists get hold of Mox fuel?

Mox fuel would be transported all over the world, but theft or sabotage is almost impossible, says BNFL. The guards used to escort Mox shipments are heavily armed with rifles, gas masks and grenades.

The ships have double hulls to guard against being rammed or running aground, and there are even naval cannons on the deck.

But the fear, heightened by the recent terror attacks in the US, is that terrorists could get hold of Mox and extract the plutonium - though there are conflicting opinions about the ease with which this could be done.

The plutonium could be used in nuclear weapons or in "dirty bombs" - conventional devices containing the substance. These do not explode like a nuclear bomb, but can spread radiation over a large area.

Charles Secrett, director of Friends of the Earth, says: "The decision makes the world an even more dangerous place."

Would the Mox plant make money?

Greenpeace argues there is insufficient evidence the plant will attract enough customers, and the plant will never pay for itself.

Consultants say the plant's operation will be worth 150m to the UK over its lifetime, but Greenpeace says this profit is distorted because the huge cost of building the plant has already been written off.

Also, it says, BNFL claims that economic powers such as Japan - a BNFL customer since the 1960s - will play a major role in making the plant a success do not stand up to examination. Greenpeace says Japan has an effective moratorium on orders from Sellafield following last year's falsification incident.

BNFL counters by saying it has customers who already use its reprocessing facilities that want Mox fuel. It says it has a bulging order book.

It also says the plant will directly support more than 300 jobs and indirectly benefit hundreds more in a part of west Cumbria highly dependant on BNFL for jobs. Local unions have already given their backing to the plant.

See also:

08 Nov 01 | Sci/Tech
Nuclear plant faces legal challenge
23 Oct 01 | UK Politics
'Sellafield time bomb' warning
03 Oct 01 | England
Mox prompts mixed reaction
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