The Thorp plant reprocesses fuel
A Northern Ireland MP has welcomed newspaper reports that the Thorp reprocessing plant at Sellafield in north west England will shut in 2010.
On Tuesday, in response to a report in The Guardian, British Nuclear Fuels (BNFL) acknowledged that the Sellafield nuclear plant would shift focus from reprocessing spent nuclear fuels to managing radioactive waste.
The SDLP's Eddie McGrady said it was "great news and a welcome development".
He said: "It represents a major step towards the decommissioning of the Sellafield plant."
Northern Ireland campaigners oppose Sellafield as they say it is polluting the Irish Sea. The government in the Irish Republic has also been pressing for the plant's closure.
There are two reprocessing plants at the site - the Magnox (MOX) plant, for fuel from the first generation of British reactors, and Thorp which converts used fuel from power plants into waste, uranium and plutonium for British and overseas customers.
News of the closure was broken by The Guardian which quoted Sellafield director Brian Watson as saying the Cumbrian plant would switch fully to waste handling.
Mr Watson was quoted as saying: "There is £30bn worth of clean-up work here. We are switching from reprocessing to clean up. We hope that will be seen in a more positive light.
"This site is like a supertanker that takes some turning. I have had to let
people go who would not make the change, and go they have."
In its statement, the BNFL said its current order book of contracts extended to 2010 - but refused to confirm that was the date envisaged for the closure of Thorp's reprocessing activities.
"Although the focus of the Sellafield Site is shifting from commercial reprocessing to clean up and managing the historic legacy, BNFL has made it clear that all existing reprocessing contracts will be honoured," it said.
Any future role for Thorp, it said, would depend "upon the wishes of our customers, the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority which will assume ownership of the site in 2005 and ultimately the sanction of government".
Mr McGrady, the MP for South Down who has long campaigned against Sellafield, said: "The closure of the Thorp plant should lead to a substantial reduction in the discharge of toxic waste into the Irish Sea.
Mr McGrady said the news marked the beginning of the end for Sellafield
"It should also prevent the further growth of the quantity of land-stored highly radioactive waste."
He said for British Nuclear Fuels and the British Government to write off the £1.8bn Thorp works, which opened nine years ago, "is a total admission that the arguments used against the commissioning and opening of the plant on health, environmental and economic grounds were right and justified all along".
But Mr McGrady said he would remain cautious about British Nuclear Fuels' future plans.
"It is also vitally important that Sellafield is not used as part of the possible attempts at cleaning up the mess of the Cold War."