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Thursday, 20 December, 2001, 21:04 GMT
Protests at Sellafield's Mox plant
John Gormley (left) and environmental protester, PA
Irish politicians joined protesters outside Sellafield
A controversial nuclear reprocessing plant in Cumbria, in northwest England, has begun formal operations involving plutonium.

British Nuclear Fuels Limited (BNFL) confirmed on Thursday it had spent the day testing the sensitivity of plutonium detectors in the mixed oxide (Mox) plant at Sellafield.

A spokesman said: "Things have gone as normal; I am not aware of any problems."

Once the testing is complete, which is expected to take a fortnight, the plant will begin producing the Mox fuel.

Environmental challenges

The plant is testing its manufacturing process after surviving five rounds of public consultation and legal challenges from the Irish Government and two environmental groups.

On Thursday, protesters shouted at workers as they arrived.

BNFLs nuclear reprocessing plant at Sellafield, BBC
BNFL: Speeding up the testing process
Neil McCann, a barrister and former mayor of Dundalk, was one of several Irish politicians to join in the protests outside Sellafield.

He said: "It is a threshold because this is effectively the commissioning of Mox which presents a hazard to all the people of Ireland."

John Gormley, 42, the Green Party member for Dublin South East, said: "This marks a new era for Sellafield - without Mox it really is a goner.

"It is completely uneconomical."

Nuclear fuel will be produced at Sellafield by the recycling of uranium and plutonium.

The first batch of plutonium was transferred to the site at 0215 GMT on Thursday after a licence to operate was granted by the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate.

Jack Allen, BNFL's head of operations at Mox, said: "This is the best Christmas present we could have had.

"This is just the beginning of Mox fuel manufacture and our focus is now on delivering the first fuel to customers."

But Martin Forwood, a spokesman for Cumbrians Opposed to a Radioactive Environment, said: "The plant has no future from day one.

Pollution concerns

"You will end up with far too much nuclear fuel for no business.

"It is just a white elephant for the Sellafield area."

Environmental groups Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace have previously argued that health and environment ministers took a "distorted" view when they decided the introduction of Mox was "economically justified" under European Union law.

Ireland is concerned about radioactive discharges into the Irish Sea.

A woman joins the protest, PA
Ireland fears radioactive discharges

And Norway has threatened legal action after finding pollution along its west coast, and in the Arctic.

The United Nations International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea in Hamburg has already rejected arguments that the 470m development broke international laws on sea pollution and posed safety and security concerns.

Recycling used fuel recovers 97% of valuable, reusable materials and separates out the remaining 3% as waste.

The Mox plant in Cumbria was completed in 1996 but has lain idle since.

Commercial go-ahead for the plant was withheld following financial concerns, and an incident when workers were found to have falsified data.

There have also been fears that the plant could become a target for terrorists or those wishing to steal nuclear materials.

'Think again'

Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace reacted angrily to the announcement.

Charles Secrett, director of Friends Of The Earth, said: "MOX is a political, economical and environmental nightmare.

"Allowing MOX to go ahead will simply anger our neighbours and threaten their security.

"We call on the Government and BNFL, even at this late stage, to think again and stop the commissioning of this dangerous plutonium plant before its too late."

Greenpeace also condemned the decision and said it was a major step backwards for the environment and international security.

Spokesman Mark Johnston said: "The news of this act will be greeted with condemnation and incredulity in countries around the world opposed to the plutonium industry and BNFL in particular.

See also:

19 Dec 01 | Sci/Tech
Norway demands UK nuclear rethink
17 Dec 01 | Northern Ireland
Irish appeal over nuclear plant
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