The UK government has given the go-ahead for BNFL to commence operations at its Sellafield MOX plant (SMP), despite fears that it would become a target for terrorists.

The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Margaret Beckett, and the Secretary of State for Health, Alan Milburn, made the decision after considering all the relevant information, including the comments received in response to the five public consultations that have been carried out since 1997. The latest round of consultations, carried out at the end of July this year, invited comments from the public on a report prepared by consultants Arthur D. Little (see NEI September 2001, p12). Should SMP be allowed to operate, the report concluded, there would be an expected national economic interest case net present value of £216 million and a 97% probability of it being greater than zero.

Norman Askew, Chief Executive of BNFL, said: “Our customers have been extremely patient with us and we can now get on with the business of manufacturing fuel for them and to repay the commitment that they have shown us.” Opponents of the facility are furious with the news. Two days after the decision, Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, in a rare joint action, filed a lawsuit against the government with the London high court. The lawsuit contests that SMP is economically viable and requests a judicial review of the decision.

According to European law, a facility that increases the radiation dose to the public must be economic. Radiation doses to the most exposed members of the public are put at 0.002µSv per year for discharges to air and 30×10-6µSv per year for liquid discharges.

The Irish government has also said it would take Britain to court, and is drawing up a legal action under European Union law, as well as considering a claim under the United Nations Convention on Law of the Sea. Joe Jacob, Irish minister with responsibility for nuclear safety, said: “Make no mistake, this is a battle we must win. We will exploit every legal avenue which will stop this disastrous development in its tracks.” Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern told the Irish parliament he would be raising the matter with his British counterpart Tony Blair. Ireland has a long history of opposition to Sellafield, located about 60 miles from the Irish coast.

SMP was completed in 1996 but, following financial concerns and the data falsification incident, approval for commercial operation was delayed. Before SMP can start full operation, BNFL is required under its Sellafield site licence to obtain consent for plutonium commissioning from the Health and Safety Executive.