Cadarache Special - Plutonium Investigation n°20

The ATPu and Monitoring of MOX Production

The international context

The BNFL scandal and its international repercussions have dented the confidence of many electricity companies (especially Japanese and German) in the European MOX sector. Falsifying of MOX quality control data in the BNFL plant at Sellafield, resulting in reports from the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate (NII) that mentioned "systematic management failures", led nuclear reactor operators to carry out audits on all of the MOX producers. In the light of the "scandal", the Irish, Danish and Norwegian governments, signatories to the OSPAR Convention 14 and firmly opposed to reprocessing, denounced the polluting effects of the activity. The Danish proposal submitted to the OSPAR Commission, and demanding "suspending of reprocessing […] with immediate effect", finally received the necessary support of three-quarters of the signatories to the Convention and came into force on 16 January 2001. France and Great Britain, however, did not vote, allowing them not to commit and thus reducing the effectiveness of the resolution as it does not include the two major reprocessing countries.

The reaction of Japanese operators was to require audits of the Sellafield production line, to forbid any further shipment of spent fuel to the U.K. reprocessing plant, and to demand that BNFL take back the MOX involved. Germany, then Switzerland and Sweden, also froze their MOX programs with BNFL. Even the British operator British Energy seems decided to abandon reprocessing rapidly.15 The only good news for BNFL is that it appears that the company was able to secure an agreement with the German electricity company E.On for manufacture of MOX. No details of this had been published at the end of May 2001.

The Japanese and then German audits did not spare other manufacturers. A delegation from Japan's Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI) and representatives of Japanese companies visited the Belgonucléaire plant in Belgium to check on the efficiency of quality control, and German operators checked the quality at Cadarache.

Questions of quality at Cadarache

It was in this context that COGEMA indicated to two German companies, Siemens and the electricity company Bayernwerk, "a malfunction which occurred in a software" at the ATPu. The two companies carried out a joint "contradictory" audit at the Cadarache plant. The malfunction concerned a batch of fuel sent to the ISAR-2 power plant, operated by Bayernwerk, in December 1999. The software in question recorded the second check on statistical samples of fuel pellets. A COGEMA communiqué of 30 March 2000, describing the function of the software as recording "secondary tests", states that "the computer system error […] did not affect the quality of MOX produced at Cadarache." This is the same formula as that used by BNFL regarding its incriminated fuel. The deficient stage — the second quality control point for diameter of pellets — is also identical to the U.K. case. The incident was not classified on the INES scale.


14 The Convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment of the North-East Atlantic, ratified by the contracting parties (including France) on 25 March 1998, at Sintra, Portugal.

15 Mr Michael Kirwan, Financial Director of British Energy, declared, in The Independen" national newspaper, 11 May 2000: "From our point of view, reprocessing is an economic absurdity and should be stopped immediately." On 19 May, The Guardian confirmed that British Energy had started negotiations with BNFL to end its reprocessing contracts and convert to storage of spent fuel.

Previous page               To be continued (Closure of the ATPu, a Reprieve?)
Back to contents