Sellafield safety scandal will cost us £100m
Independent (London), 12 July 2000
By Charles Arthur, Technology Editor
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
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
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 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
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.