Sellafield reprocessing plant could re-open

British Nuclear Fuels has cleared a preliminary hurdle following the closure of its fuel reprocessing plant earlier this year. The UK's independent nuclear safety regulator, the Health and Safety Executive, has said it accepts BNFL's responses to all 15 recommendations made in a key report, which should lead to the plant being able to reopen.

The report was issued following the HSE’s investigation into data falsification at the mixed plutonium and uranium oxide demonstration facility (MDF) on the Sellafield site. The investigation began in 1999 after BNFL informed it of apparent falsification of records relating to mixed plutonium and uranium oxide (MOX) fuels for supply to a customer in Japan (see related story).

Before its closure, the MDF facility produced MOX fuels from spent fuel rods brought in from Europe and Japan, and treated and stored radioactive wastes. The HSE report contained serious criticisms of the Sellafield nuclear plant, setting back government plans to part-privatise the business.

In its February report, the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate – part of the HSE – concluded that workers had been able to falsify records, which listed the diameters of MOX fuel pellets for delivery to Japan, because of a “systematic management failure”.

BNFL responded to the report in April, since when NII inspectors have been rigorously testing the evidence it supplied.

BNFL’s chief executive Norman Askew welcomed the latest development. “This is excellent news for the company. The thoroughness with which the recommendations have been tackled reflects well on the commitment and hard work of the Sellafield team. It opens the way to the re-commissioning of MDF as a support facility, which is the next step to the eventual commissioning of the Sellafield MOX plant,” he said.

“Everyone in BNFL and especially the Sellafield management team remains committed to delivering on its promises,” added Askew. “In particular, we continue to work towards meeting the recommendations in the HSE’s team inspection report, which addresses issues across the whole of the Sellafield site and, therefore, there is still much work to do and we must stay focused through 2001.”

A BNFL spokesman told edie that BNFL still had to make the case to reopen the plant, having met the HSE’s recommendations. But he added, “The smaller plant is going to reopen as a support to the MOX plant – it is not going to reopen for the manufacture of fuel.”

A full-scale MOX plant had been built but had not gained approval to open when the data falsification was uncovered at the demonstration facility. BNFL now hopes to get government approval to operate the full-scale plant around mid-2001.

“This has been a significant task for both parties,” said Laurence Williams, HM Chief Inspector of Nuclear Installations. “We have applied a robust and transparent process to closing out each of the recommendations. Our inspectors have taken nothing for granted in testing the evidence supplied by BNFL. We shall continue to monitor the many changes made to confirm that they continue to be effective. Before restart of MDF, BNFL will have to obtain NII’s agreement, which will be based upon a revised safety case to take account of the MDF facility and the result of a re-commissioning programme.’

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