Friends of the Earth UK Asks Court Inquiry into MOX Nuclear Plant

LONDON, United Kingdom, May 28, 2001 (ENS) - The UK government may have to defend itself in court over how it is handling the controversial question of whether to allow British Nuclear Fuels Limited (BNFL) to open a new nuclear fuel fabrication plant at its Sellafield site in Cumbria.

On Thursday, Friends of the Earth (FoE) UK announced that it has requested a judicial inquiry over the issue. In a legal challenge supported by Greenpeace, FoE claims that the government has contravened European Union law in its ongoing assessment of the economic viability of the mixed oxide (MOX) plant at Sellafield.

Sellafield

British Nuclear Fuels Ltd. Sellafield facility (Photos courtesy BNFL)
Sellafield manufactures nuclear fuel rods, reprocesses spent nuclear fuel from nine countries and treats and stores radioactive wastes. The Sellafield MOX plant has been designed to fabricate this new fuel with plutonium which is recovered from used nuclear fuel when it is reprocessed.

Friends of the Earth says that the Deputy Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Health have acted unlawfully, by deliberately restricting the scope of the final public consultation exercise.

The Department of Environment, Transport and the Regions commissioned Arthur D. Little Consultants to undertake an independent evaluation of the economic case for the Sellafield MOX plant last month. This work ran parallel with the eight week public consultation exercise which ended May 23. Ministers have said they will not be subjecting the Little report to public scrutiny before they take their decision on the Sellafield plant. These reports are usually made public, FoE's legal advisor Peter Roderick told reporters.

The Sellafield MOX plant will mix plutonium dioxide and uranium dioxide to manufacture Mixed Oxide (MOX) fuel for conventional nuclear power stations.

Around 10 percent of MOX fuel is plutonium, and there are fears that it could be used for making nuclear weapons.

The Friends of the Earth UK believes that the government is close to granting approval for the MOX plant to begin operations and that the scope of the final consultants' report has been manipulated to support such a decision.

MOX

Roundness measurement being performed on an experimental fuel pellet in a BNFL lab.
FoE says that the UKú462m (US$657 million) that was spent constructing the plant must be included in any economic assessment, but that the government has asked consultants to judge the plant's economic viability on its future operating costs alone.

The MOX plant was completed in 1996, but its opening was delayed after safety breaches were discovered at a smaller demonstration facility in September 1999. A UK government report in February 2000 faulted management for the falsification of data about the fabrication of MOX pellets sold to Japan, Germany and other European countries.

FoE says that despite BNFL's enthusiasm to start the new plant, "the order book remains almost empty, with contracts having been secured for less than 10 percent of capacity." British Energy, the UK's privatised nuclear generator, has refused to use MOX.

But on May 8, BNFL signed a contract for the supply of MOX fuel manufactured at the Sellafield MOX Plant with Framatome ANP for the Swedish utility OKG's Oskarshamn reactor site.

The contract brings "contracted/reserved business" lined up for the Sellafield plant to 40 percent of what it needs to justify the plant economically, the company says.

Mark Johnston, nuclear campaigner at Friends of the Earth said, "The growing stockpile of separated plutonium is a worldwide embarrassment for the nuclear industry. It only exists because of the continuing yet necessary reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel. The MOX option for plutonium is both expensive and misguided."

"The fact that government is the sole owner of the company does not permit it to disregard the law in order to allow BNFL to start making MOX," Johnston said.

A government spokesperson said that FoE's request for a judicial review was "premature and misguided."

{ENDS Environment Daily contributed to this report. Environmental Data Services Ltd, London}