July 2000

Campaigners threaten to block return of BNFL fuel

Independent (London), 12 July 2000
By Charles Arthur, Technology Editor

[Posted 17/07/2000]

Anti-nuclear campaigners warned yesterday that they may try to block the shipment back to Britain from Japan of suspect nuclear fuel.

Greenpeace said it had "not ruled out" trying to disrupt travel arrangements for the two 100-tonne flasks of mixed-oxide (MOX) nuclear fuel, which will have to sail under armed escort for thousands of miles to return to British Nuclear Fuels' (BNFL) plant at Sellafield in Cumbria.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Trade and Industry confirmed that the 40m compensation agreed by BNFL plus the cost of returning the shipment would be met by the Government. The total bill for the taxpayer, it is feared, could reach 100m, according to some sources. "Yes, it is right that the Government, and therefore the taxpayers, underwrite the BNFL business," she said. BNFL will have to pay more than half of the compensation immediately in cash.

Organising the shipment will take between two and three years because up to 50 countries will have to agree to the ship, carrying highly toxic plutonium, sailing in their waters. It will also require US Congress approval, as the plutonium incorporated into the fuel was originally manufactured there.

The Kansai Electric Company in Japan received the fuel last autumn, just as The Independent revealed its safety records had been falsified, sparking a major investigation into the plant and ministerial threats to close it down.

Greenpeace nuclear campaigner Shaun Burnie said yesterday: "The agreement to return the MOX fuel is a desperate attempt to secure vital contracts for the new, but unopened Sellafield MOX plant, which so far has less than 7 per cent of its order book signed, and no Japanese contracts."

The new 300m MOX plant has not yet received a licence to operate. BNFL executives admitted yesterday the fuel scandal had set its campaign for a licence back by "years".

Mr Burnie said: "This shipment is being made to save an industry that has no future... the announcement threatens the health and environment of the many countries along the MOX transport's global route." Asked if Greenpeace would try to stop the shipment, as it has attempted with other controversial voyages, a spokeswoman said: "One of the things we never do is to rule out the right to take direct action if there is something wrong going on."

The decision by BNFL and the British Government to accept the fuel back marks a significant climbdown.

Norman Askew, BNFL's chief executive, who met with Kansai last month, said: "We still have much work to do to continue the process of rebuilding customer confidence... everyone in BNFL is determined to regain that confidence. This agreement is the start of that process."

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