nuclear scandal in Japan threatens viability of Sellafield
Independent, 31 August 2002
By Steve Connor, Science Editor
A nuclear scandal in Japan has threatened the viability of a £350m
plant reprocessing plutonium run by British Nuclear Fuels a company
still reeling from its own scandal involving falsified data.
Japan's biggest nuclear utility, Tokyo Electric Power (Tepco), admitted
that it has found cracks in the pipes of two reactors that were destined
to burn mixed oxide (Mox) fuel made at BNFL's Sellafield Mox Plant in
Details of the cracks have been kept secret for more than two years.
Tepco has shut down the two reactors at Fukushima Daiichi and Kashiwazaki
Kariwa and has delayed restarting them until hundreds of pipes are checked.
Both reactors were scheduled to be test sites for the burning of new
Mox fuel shipped from either BNFL or the Belgian-French reprocessing
company, Cogema. Tepco has now delayed the tests indefinitely.
The discovery has led to bitter recriminations, with local governments
in Japan vowing not to allow Mox fuel to be loaded into any reactors
as part of the central government's ambitious plutonium-burning "pluthermal"
Yesterday a spokesman for BNFL accepted that the cracks and the way
they were covered up by Tepco could damage Britain's attempt to sell
Mox fuel to Japan, potentially the biggest customer of the new Sellafield
"We understand that Tepco will be fully investigating this
matter and it would not be appropriate for BNFL to comment on the situation.
We recognise that this could delay the start of the Japanese pluthermal
programme but it is too early to assess any overall effect,"
the spokesman said.
Officials from Tepco found that more than half of the 61 pipes it had
inspected in its Fukushima plant's number three reactor showed signs
of damage. Corrosion was so severe in six of the stainless steel pipes
that they measured less than half their original thickness.
Akira Kawate, vice-governor of the Fukushima prefecture, said Tepco
and the national government had covered up details of the inspections
since at least 2000. "We absolutely cannot co-operate with the
national government's nuclear programme," Mr Kawate said.
Another senior Japanese official, Ikuo Hirayama, the governor of Niigata
prefecture, said the incident and the way that news emerged was nothing
short of scandalous.
"For the foreseeable future going forward with the pluthermal
programme is impossible. It is unthinkable," Mr Hirayama said.
Local governments in Japan need to give their permission for Mox fuel
to be loaded into reactors within their prefectures. This means that
it will be even more difficult for BNFL to secure the Mox contracts
it so desperately needs to justify the opening earlier this year of
its Sellafield Mox plant.
The company said that about 40 per cent of the capacity of the plant
had already been secured, but refused to say how much of this was tied
up in written contracts rather than verbal assurances.
Shaun Bernie, an anti- nuclear campaigner with Greenpeace International,
said that the latest developments in Japan would delay any future Mox
contracts with Japan by several years. This could critically affect
the future viability of the Mox plant, which was only opened on the
basis of business with the Japanese nuclear industry.