The £2.8 billion plant is designed to reprocess uranium oxide fuel from advanced gas-cooled reactors to extract uranium and plutonium. In its first ten years' operation alone, BNFL plans to reprocess some 7,000 tonnes of fuel, mainly from the UK, Japan and Germany, producing some 60 tonnes of plutonium.
The plant was completed last year, but HM Inspectorate of Pollution (HMIP) refused to allow commissioning until a revised discharge licence for the Sellafield site had been issued. HMIP and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF) released draft authorisations for public comment last November (ENDS Report 214, pp 19-22 ). These generated 85,000 responses, more than 75% of which voiced objections to the project.
HMIP submitted its report to the Department of the Environment (DoE) in May, but its brief was limited to the immediate environmental consequences of discharges from the site.
In contrast, most objections to the project centre on the need for THORP in view of the changed circumstances since it won approval at the 1977 Windscale inquiry. Research into fast breeder reactors, which burn plutonium fuel, has been stopped in all countries except Japan, and recovered plutonium is increasingly seen as adding to the risk of nuclear weapons proliferation. Uranium prices have plummeted since 1977, and there are growing technical doubts over the waste management implications of reprocessing.
In a parliamentary answer on 28 June, Environment Secretary John Gummer announced a second round of consultation to consider these wider issues.1 "A significant number of the responses," he said, "raised questions as to the justification for the operation of THORP".
The driving force behind the decision appears to be the Government's desire to avoid a challenge in the courts. In February, Greenpeace obtained a legal opinion that the Government could be open to judicial review if it failed to take into account all relevant considerations - including economic and strategic factors. ENDS understands that the Attorney General has confirmed this interpretation.
The Government clearly wants THORP to proceed. But in the face of fierce lobbying from BNFL for a rapid decision, it is trying to strike a very fine balance between ensuring that it will not be open to legal challenge and delaying the project as little as possible.
Greenpeace is seeking legal advice as to whether the new round of consultation goes far enough to get the Government off the hook. The group believes that the Ministerial endorsement of THORP in the Commons debate could be viewed as prejudicial to the outcome of the consultation.
The DoE expects the 10-week consultation period to begin in late July. It is seeking statements from both BNFL and the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) addressing the wider need for the plant and other areas of concern over reprocessing. These will be sent out along with HMIP's report on the environmental effects.
Greenpeace accused Mr Gummer of "fudging the issue", and repeated its assertion that the Government is legally bound to hold a full public inquiry "to ensure that all of the issues involved receive proper and independent scrutiny." If it decides to seek a judicial review, it may well do so before the consultation round is complete.
Mr Gummer's announcement was made only a few hours before the Commons debated a motion tabled by Simon Hughes, the Liberal Democrats' environment spokesman.
The motion called for a full public inquiry into the economic justification for THORP, the terms of existing reprocessing contracts and the alternative options such as dry storage of spent fuel. Mr Hughes criticised the limited scope of the new consultation round, asking "how on earth can there be an objective assessment of jobs, of the economics issue and the environmental issue, unless the people and their evidence are put in the public domain and cross-examined?"
BNFL has claimed that scrapping THORP could result in the loss of £900 million worth of contracts for the first ten years, as well as an obligation to pay its existing customers up to £5 billion in compensation. It also says that up to 3,000 jobs could be lost, and that each week of delay while the plant awaits authorisation is costing £2.4 million.
Mr Hughes cast doubt on BNFL's figures, demanding that all the contracts should be put in the public domain. On the issue of compensation, he said that the quoted costs are "highly speculative" and that "it is not acceptable for Parliament to accept the view only of BNFL, which clearly has a vested interest." He also questioned BNFL's figure of £900 million for decommissioning THORP, and demanded to know whether the terms of the contracts would be fulfilled if BNFL put the waste into dry storage rather than reprocessing it.
Dry storage has been adopted in the USA, Sweden, Canada and Finland. BNFL itself is planning to offer such a facility, and Scottish Nuclear and Nuclear Electric are showing great interest in the option as a way of reducing their huge potential bill for reprocessing once their initial 10-year contracts with BNFL have expired.
Scottish Nuclear's plans are the most advanced, and a planning inquiry into a dry storage facility at its Torness station recently ended. Mr Hughes drew attention to the favourable findings of the leaked inquiry inspector's report. As this shows that Government policy "is not universally and unilaterally in favour of reprocessing," he argued, "the entire logic of THORP is questionable." Mr Hughes claimed that replacing THORP with a dry storage facility at Sellafield could lead to "many more jobs...than we would have through the reprocessing option."
However, the Democrats' motion was vigorously opposed by DTI Minister Tim Eggar. He spoke in favour of a Government amendment which congratulated BNFL on completing THORP, expressed confidence in the non-proliferation arrangements with overseas customers, and supported the commissioning of the plant "at the earliest practicable date", subject to the granting of the appropriate consents. This motion was signed by, among others, the Prime Minister, the Chancellor and the President of the Board of Trade.
Mr Eggar gave a robust defence of THORP, describing it as a "flagship for Britain" and a "major export achievement". He dismissed the Democrats' call for a public inquiry as a "magic solution", and claimed that the second round of consultation would satisfy demands for consideration of the wider issues. However, he went to some lengths to avoid ruling out all possibility of a public inquiry - no doubt with an eye to Greenpeace's threat of a judicial review.
If passed, the Democrats' motion would, he claimed, "lead directly to the loss of 3,000 jobs" and "to a loss of confidence by overseas investors and our major trading partners".
Mr Eggar lent only qualified support to BNFL's warnings of high compensation claims if the plant were to be scrapped. "Under certain scenarios", he said, the contract could require compensation "of the order" of BNFL's figure of £5 billion. However, he dismissed demands for publication of the contracts as a "classical cop-out" that would merely "help the French and BNFL's international competitors".
Mr Eggar conspicuously failed to address the underlying concerns over the strategic and economic case for the plant. His argument was summed up by his statement that "we need THORP because customers have signed contracts and want it... They are exercising their right to choose what they do with their spent fuel". And he attacked the idea of a switch to dry storage as "rather like telling customers in a car showroon that it is immoral to buy a car and that it would be better to ride out of the showroom on a bicycle."
But THORP's order books are full only for the first ten years' operation - and in the longer term the picture is far from rosy. The UK and German nuclear utilities have confirmed that, despite rumours of disquiet over costs and liabilities, they plan to fulfil these existing contracts. After ten years, however, they are expected to move towards dry storage. Similarly, although ten Japanese electricity companies have placed advertisements in the UK press supporting the plant, within the next decade Japan should have completed its own reprocessing facility.
Mr Eggar's most contentious argument was that "there is no evidence" to support the Democrats' claim of a hardening of international opposition. This is frankly insupportable.
On 19 June, the Paris Commission, which regulates pollution in the North Sea, agreed a Recommendation expressing concern that the commissioning of THORP will cause additional radioactive discharges from Sellafield. The Recommendation provides that revised authorisations for radioactive discharges from reprocessing facilities should only be issued if "special consideration" is given to "information on the need for spent fuel reprocessing and on other options" and also to a full environmental assessment. Any authorisation must be subject to consultation with the Paris Commission.
This agreement was driven by Denmark and Ireland, and backed by the Scandinavian countries. Although Belgium, France and the UK - all with reprocessing interests - tabled reservations on the Recommendation, it provides ample evidence of powerful international pressure on the UK to reconsider its options over THORP.
For the Labour Party, shadow environment spokesman Chris Smith accused Mr Eggar of prejudging the consultation round. "The Government are, in effect, saying that they have made up their mind, but that they will consult because, legally, they must be seen to do so," he said.
He echoed Mr Hughes' call for greater transparency in the contracts and derivation of decommissioning costs, and asked for a report on THORP's economic prospects, carried out by Touche Ross for BNFL, to be made public. However, Labour did not officially support the Democrat motion, and Mr Smith stopped short of demanding a public inquiry. He suggested that a report on the contracts by the Auditor General could command sufficient confidence.
Mr Smith's main demand was that "a full environmental assessment is needed, coupled with wide public debate" - in view of the Paris Commission Recommendation this is now "a virtual necessity". He argued that there was a consensus about the lack of need for reprocessed plutonium and uranium, and that the choice of the best environmental option for waste management "has now become the central nub of the THORP issue."
However, Dale Campbell-Savours (Lab, Workington) warned that if THORP failed to open the effects on local employment would be "an unmitigated disaster" for his constituency. He accused the Government of dithering, and demanded to know why the wider issues of economics and need for the plant had not been tackled at the outset of the consultation process.
The Democrats' motion was eventually defeated by 157 votes to 43.
BNFL responded angrily to the delay caused by the extra round of consultation, claiming that the issue of need had been resolved 16 years earlier. The day after the debate, it announced that it was laying off 1,700 contract workers at Sellafield. The Government pointed out that these jobs would have been lost anyway once commissioning of THORP was complete.
However, a further issue is likely to be dragged into the consultation process with the publication of a report by the Government's Radioactive Waste Management Advisory Committee (RWMAC). The Committee has previously expressed doubts over the waste management need for reprocessing and also over the integrity of Nirex's planned repository for intermediate level waste (ILW) at Sellafield.
RWMAC's latest report concerns BNFL's plans to return to overseas customers the high level wastes (HLW) plus an quantity of HLW equivalent in radiological terms to the ILW generated by reprocessing.
The first shipment of HLW from THORP is scheduled to go to Japan in 1996. RWMAC warns that until the basis for calculating waste equivalences is agreed between BNFL and its customers, waste substitution should not be approved. Furthermore, it notes that "substitution may be at variance with Government policy on other wastes, which is that developed countries should move towards self-sufficiency in the final disposal of their waste." RWMAC has asked BNFL to examine the case for returning foreign ILW rather than vitrified HLW - an option which BNFL has conceded is technically feasible but more costly.
The report also says that BNFL should demonstrate that "retention of foreign ILW resulting from reprocessing will not cause health or safety concerns to the UK population." It recommends a trial return of HLW by 1994 to demonstrate that the arrangements are acceptable to overseas customers.
But the most damaging element of RWMAC's report is the explicit linking of THORP with the controversial Nirex repository. Last year, Nirex dropped its planning application for the repository in the face of mounting evidence that groundwater flow could return radioactive waste to the surface far faster than anticipated. The company is now seeking planning approval for an underground "rock laboratory" to confirm groundwater movements - and has pushed back the date for the opening of the repository to 2006/7.
BNFL's substitution scenario is based on the Nirex repository being available by 2005 and a best-case return time of the groundwater to the surface. RWMAC virtually accuses BNFL of selective presentation of the evidence, and demands that "worst" and "most likely" scenarios for groundwater return time be supplied. Without this information, RWMAC says that it "is not in a position to comment fully on the radiological and environmental impact for the UK."
RWMAC has already attacked Nirex for taking a "consistently over-optimistic view as to how long it will take to achieve specific objectives." The Committee does not now expect the repository to be ready until 2010 - by which time reprocessing of foreign waste could account for 60-70% of Sellafield's ILW output. This waste would be contaminated with plutonium - and "has the potential to create heated debate over the UK being labelled the 'European dumping ground for radioactive waste' by pressure groups."