BNFL agrees to take back reprocessed nuclear fuel from Japan

In the latest chapter in the saga of Sellafield’s falsified fuel data, British Nuclear Fuels (BNFL) announced on Tuesday that it had agreed to compensate the Kansai Electric Power Company £40 million, and to return the reprocessed nuclear fuel to the UK. In return, Kansai Electric has decided to lift the suspension on new fuel and reprocessing business.

The compensation will be paid half in cash, and half in kind, should reprocessing at Sellafield be resumed on a commercial scale. BNFL are unable to say how long it will take to return the reprocessed fuel from Japan, but quote a British Government official’s estimate of two to three years.

In September last year it was revealed that three Sellafield workers had been falsifying quality control data on pellets of fuel made from mixed oxides of plutonium and uranium (MOX), which, though it posed no threat to the safety of the fuel, did bring into question the reliability of management and practices at the reprocessing plant. By the time the news broke, a quantity of the fuel in question had arrived in Japan, where the incident was regarded as a scandal, and all business with BNFL was suspended (see related story). Since December 1999, the fuel has been stored in a cooling pond at the Takahama reactor site.

A number of BNFL workers associated with the falsification have since been sacked, and the company also has a new Chief Executive (see related story). BNFL says that it is fully committed to demonstrating continuing improvements in its quality control procedures in order to ensure new MOX and reprocessing business in Japan.

Norman Askew, BNFL’s Chief Executive, who met with Kansai in late June said: “We have been working very hard with our customer to find a solution. I am very pleased that these matters have been resolved, and with the lifting of the moratorium it opens the way for the re-establishing of a normal business relationship.”

“We still have much work to do to continue the process of rebuilding customer confidence. We have enjoyed a positive and successful relationship with our customers in Japan for some 30 years and everyone in BNFL is determined to regain that confidence. This agreement is the start of that process.”

The announcement that the fuel is to be brought back to England has been criticised by environmental campaigners, as being both unnecessary and a threat to the environment and security of countries along the transport route. According to Greenpeace, the MOX fuel contains sufficient plutonium for 25 nuclear weapons, and the campaign group is calling for the fuel to be treated as nuclear waste in Japan.

“What the UK government and BNFL do not understand is that the MOX business makes no economic sense,” said Greenpeace nuclear campaigner, Bridget Woodman. “This shipment is being made to save an industry that has no future. Rather than generate more international opposition to Britain’s plutonium industry and government policy, this plan should be scrapped.”

Though the exact details for the return of the fuel have not yet been confirmed, BNFL told edie that it is most likely that it will be in the same way that it was sent to Japan: in two purpose-built ships with three fixed guns each, and a guard force made up from the UK Atomic Energy Authority’s Constabulary, the force that guards nuclear sites within the UK. With an incident-free 40 years of carrying nuclear material around the world, BNFL is confident that the journey poses no safety risks.

Greeting the news on Tuesday, Energy Minister Helen Liddell said: “I welcome today’s agreement between BNFL and Kansai. The Government will work with the Government of Japan in helping where it can to implement BNFL’s decision that the fuel at Takahama be returned to the UK. I am pleased that the obstacle to business between BNFL and Kansai has now been lifted.”

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