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Thursday, 8 November, 2001, 20:43 GMT
Nuclear plant tests were 'distorted'
Sellafield, BBC
Unions have welcomed the Sellafield decision
Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth (FoE) have begun their court action to block the UK Government's go-ahead for a controversial nuclear fuel recycling plant.

They are asking London's High Court to declare unlawful the decision to allow the mixed plutonium and uranium oxide (Mox) plant at Sellafield in Cumbria to go into full production.

Lawyers for the groups argue that a flawed and distorted approach to crucial economic tests lay behind the approval.

They seek to dilute the [economic] test into something rubbery and elusive

Lord Lester QC
As well as the tests necessary for EU law, they say there was insufficient evidence that the plant would attract customers such as the Japanese to make it viable.

Construction costs of 470m had been "disregarded" in assessing whether the scheme could be economically justified, Lord Lester QC argued.

If they had been properly taken into account, the scheme would show an overall financial loss.

Lord Lester told Mr Justice Collins: "They seek to dilute the [economic] test into something rubbery and elusive which doesn't amount to an effective test at all."

'Irreversible implementation'

The environmental groups also believe the plant is dangerous because it could make it easier for terrorists to obtain nuclear materials.

Lord Lester said the case was urgent because British Nuclear Fuels Ltd (BNFL) wished to take "irreversible implementation steps" for the Mox plant as early as 20 December this year.

Nuclear transport ship, BNFL
Environmentalists believe terrorists could get hold of nuclear materials
Philip Sales, appearing for the secretaries of state for environment and health, said if the court ruled against the government, the Mox scheme would have to be reconsidered.

Mr Justice Collins asked him: "Even if [the environmental groups] win, it is not necessarily the end of Mox?" Mr Sales replied: "No".

The judge was told that Mox was also being challenged by the Irish Government in Europe.

Lord Lester said at the heart of the case was the EU Basic Safety Standards Directive.

The directive imposes a duty on national governments to apply a test on all new types of exposure to ionizing radiation.

Radiation-producing practice

It rules these practices can be justified on the basis that their economic, social or other benefits outweigh the health detriments they might cause.

If there is no "net benefit", then a radiation-producing practice is not to be adopted.

Government ministers were arguing that the scheme was justified because it would provide "significant economic benefits" and had a "net present value of 216 million".

But the capital cost of building the Mox plant, which amounted to 470m in June this year, had been disregarded, even though the cost was plainly relevant to assessing the benefits.

'Net benefit'

Lord Lester argued the point "matters enormously".

The "net benefit" claimed by the government for Mox would "disappear" if the 470 million were included. Overall, the costs outweighed the benefit "very substantially".

The Mox plant, which turns nuclear fuel already "burnt" in a reactor into a new fuel source, was completed by Sellafield's owners BNFL in 1996.

Mr Sales argued that the exclusion of the 470m "sunk" construction costs when assessing the generic benefits of Mox was "perfectly normal and rational".

'Open-textured' directive

It was not only sunk costs which had been left out of account, but also potential benefits for BNFL's businesses "likely to run into hundreds of millions of pounds".

Mr Sales said the EU directive applied a test of economic justification which was "extremely open-textured".

Government ministers concluded that the radiological disadvantages were "very small".

They believed Mox manufacture could be carried out within limits that would effectively protect human health, the safety of the food chain and the environment generally.

Mox production involved lower security risks than transporting plutonium already at Sellafield back to customers or third countries.

The hearing was adjourned until Friday.

See also:

08 Nov 01 | UK
Q&A: Sellafield's Mox plant
08 Nov 01 | Sci/Tech
Nuclear plant faces legal challenge
23 Oct 01 | UK Politics
'Sellafield time bomb' warning
03 Oct 01 | Sci/Tech
Nuclear plant gets go-ahead
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