July 2000


The Sellafield safety scandal will cost us 100m

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

[Posted 17/07/2000]

The problems that have ended up with British Nuclear Fuels pledging to pay 40m compensation - or more realistically 100m - in taxpayers' money were sitting yesterday in a pool in the Takahama nuclear facility in Japan. They are two stainless steel flasks, each weighing 100 tonnes, which together would fill the sitting room of a large house.

Sometime in the next two or three years those flasks will be loaded onto a ship destined to return to Britain. Japan's Kansai Electric Company rejected them after it realised, following reports in The Independent starting last September, that the data about the pellets of uranium and plutonium in the mixed-oxide (MOX) nuclear fuel might have been faked by BNFL workers. BNFL, a company in state ownership, always insisted the data was correct.

The saga of this fuel, which arrived in Takahama after a three-month journey from Cumbria last autumn, is far from over. Before the shipments can begin, the UK Government will have get permission from every country past which the fuel might sail.

Given the potential for a terrorist attack, multiple routes are preferable, which will mean a huge amount of high-level diplomacy. It will also inflate the cost of this debacle, to perhaps 100m all told.

It is a high price to pay for the sloppy management and work practices which led bored production line workers to simply pass off fuel rods as having been approved, when insufficient checks had been made.

More immediately it puts a huge question mark over the future of BNFL, and over the British Government's pledge not to increase the amount of highly radioactive waste stored in this country. The terms set by Kansai Electric are that BNFL must pay more than 20m cash in compensation as soon as possible.

The rest of the 40m package might either be accepted in the form of properly processed fuel; or, if Kansai Electric no longer needs or wants BNFL's products, it might simply take the balance in cash, leaving BNFL with a huge fuel shipment and no customer for it.

It would return the equivalent amount of plutonium to Kansai, under an arrangement by which countries swap like amounts of fuel (it would create more radioactive waste separating out the plutonium from the actual shipment than taking the same amount from a separate store).

But the actual shipment would need a home, perhaps long-term, in Britain. That would entail a change in Government policy which would meet furious opposition from environmental groups. There would also be no economic justification for doing it; storage would not create jobs.

The latter option, where Kansai disavows the shipment, is entirely possible. Japanese public confidence in the atomic industry has plummeted since an unrelated accident last September when two workers died at a nuclear fuel processing plant in Tokaimura, 70 miles from Tokyo.

Now, the Japanese government is considering a plan to make power companies generate a set amount of their energy from safe, renewable sources such as wind power.

Though one-third of Japan's electricity is generated from nuclear energy, the government said it will scale back its target of building 20 more reactors in the next 10 years.

Japan was BNFL's biggest customer. Now, that business is in tatters. "Clearly, we've lost at least nine months in getting approval for this facility," said a BNFL spokesman yesterday. "But in reality the setback is probably more like years."

In September The Independent revealed that safety checks on the fuel rods destined for Japan had been falsified. When the data for the rods had eventually been inspected - long after the rods had been approved for export - they were found to be suspiciously similar. So similar they could only be the result of copying, rather than actual inspection.

Why did that matter? Each rod contains more than 1,000 cylindrical pellets. Routinely, about 200 pellets in each rod must be sampled and their diameters measured at three points to ensure they are the correct size.

As a source close to the problem explained to The Independent in September: "If the pellets are larger than they should be, they can expand and damage the cladding of the fuel rod. If they are too small, they can vibrate and the pellets can rupture." That, inside a nuclear power plant, could be disastrous. As the story unfolded, driven by further Independent revelations, it transpired that more fuel rods were affected than had been initially thought - 22 rather than 10.

In December, Swiss nuclear safety inspectors found faults in a fuel rod supplied in 1996 by BNFL - and checked by the same people suspected of fiddling the data for the new rods. Three BNFL employees were suspended; eventually five people were dismissed. They abandoned their claim for unfair dismissal against the company as the case was about to come to court.

The Kansai Electric company told The Independent in January that it would order the return of the shipment. At that, the British government and BNFL undertook an intensive lobbying effort with the company and the Japanese government. The British ambass- ador to Japan and John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, apologised for the errors (a key step towards making any reparation with a Japanese organisation). A trade delegation visited to urge that the fuel shipment be left where it was. But Kansai, recognising the strength of its position, stuck to its guns.

The BNFL chief executive, John Taylor, resigned. A management shakeup was demanded; government ministers criticised it in public, with the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry Stephen Byers calling the previous management system "fundamentally flawed". The planned privatisation, which would have yielded 1.5bn for the public coffers, was shelved in March.

In all, it has been a dreadful nine months for the company. And it is not over. Senior staff such as Mark Jervis, the business manager with responsibility for the commercial sector, talk of the company being on "the road to recovery" as though it were an alcoholic trying to dry out.

Mr Jervis remains convinced of the potential for MOX, which combines plutonium and uranium oxide recycled from spent nuclear fuel. It can be used at existing nuclear power stations once modifications have been made to the plant.

In principle, power plant operator like MOX fuel: it reduces uranium consumption and offers a way to use the plutonium produced by burning other sorts of nuclear fuel.

"There is still a national policy in Japan to recycle fuel," said Mr Jervis. "The significant breakthrough is that the impasse between us and Kansai has been broken. Kansai has lifted the moratorium on taking reprocessed fuel from BNFL."

Whether the MOX plant can now justify the cost of building it and go into operation must remain in doubt. A BNFL spokesman said: "Until this agreement, we had three hoops to jump through: getting the moratorium lifted, getting Kansai to accept our fuel, and getting British Government approval to run the MOX facility. Now we only have to jump through the last two hoops."

A year ago, there was only the one hoop. Like a man chasing the horizon, BNFL is pursuing a dream which evades it as fast as it runs. And those two flasks of dubious fuel remain in Japan, the most damning and perhaps the final evidence of BNFL's failures.

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