September 2002

New nuclear scandal in Japan threatens viability of Sellafield

Independent, 31 August 2002
By Steve Connor, Science Editor

[Posted 02/09/2002]

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 Cumbria.

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" programme.

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 Mox Plant.

"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.

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