Further consultation for Sellafield’s MOX plant

The UK Government is inviting comments on further information about the economic case for BNFL's Mixed Oxide Reprocessing Plant (MOX) at Sellafield.

The MOX plant at Sellafield has been built at a cost of £300 million. Its purpose is to manufacture a mixed oxide fuel for use in nuclear power stations. The fuel is to be made from material separated from spent fuel reprocessed at the THORP plant at Sellafield.

Before the plant can start operations it needs to pass a test of “justification” required by European law: that is the economic benefits of operating the plant need to outweigh any environmental or other detriments. BNFL initially applied to the Environment Agency in November 1996 for approval to operate the plant. The Environment Agency, after two rounds of public consultations, concluded their consideration of the application in October 1998.

They published draft decisions at that time that uranium commissioning, plutonium commissioning and the full operation of the plant should be given the go-ahead.

The matters were referred to Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott and the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, Nick Brown in November 1998 because of their statutory responsibility to consider requests that had been made to them to decide the application themselves.

The Government’s provisional view, at present, is that full operation of BNFL’s Mixed Oxide Plant would be justified, but a final decision will depend on the outcome of further consultation. On that basis, plans for the testing of the use of uranium at the plant have been approved.

The Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (DETR) and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Farming (MAFF) are also publishing a report prepared by PA Consulting on the economic case for the plant. This is a fuller version of the report published in January 1998 by the Environment Agency. An up-dated assessment of the market for MOX fuel prepared by BNFL is also published.

In their joint decision, Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott and Nick Brown have accepted the Environment Agency’s view that the testing of the MOX plant with uranium is justified. Both are satisfied the environmental effects would be negligible.

A final decision on further testing with plutonium and the full operation of the plant will be made in the light of the responses to the consultations on the economic case for the plant.

In Answer to a Parliamentary Question from Eric Clarke, MP, (Midlothian) Prescott said: “The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and I have looked very carefully at the recommendations made by the Environment Agency about the justification for the MOX plant. We have also examined the representations made to us about the plant. Our provisional conclusion is that the balance of the argument so far is in favour of justification.

“However, we have also come to the conclusion that there should be further consultations on the economic case for the plant. We were concerned that the version of the report by PA Consulting on the economic case for the plant, which had been published by the Agency in January last year, did not contain as much information as the public could reasonably expect to see. We have, therefore decided to publish a fuller version of the report. We accept, however, that some material contained in the report is commercially confidential and cannot be published without potentially harming BNFL’s commercial interests. This information has been omitted from the version we are publishing.

“In view of the time that has passed since PA Consulting completed their report, we decided to commission from BNFL an up-to-date assessment of the market for MOX fuel. This assessment is also being published. Comments are being invited on this material by 23 July after which we shall take a final decision on the full operation of

the plant.

“While this consultation is under way, and given our view that the balance of the argument currently favours justification we have concluded that it would be right for BNFL to be allowed to proceed with the uranium commissioning of the plant. We concluded that it would be right to allow this before final conclusions are reached

about whether to give the go-ahead for the full operation of the plant. This would enable BNFL to begin testing the plant before the introduction of plutonium.

“In this way, if the plant is eventually given the go-ahead, the delays in running the plant commercially would be minimised. If, after the consultation exercise we decide that full operation is not justified, the process would be halted and uranium removed from the plant. The costs of removal, estimated at £2 million, would be met by BNFL.

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