By Richard Loyd Barry, in Takahama
JAPANESE POLITICIANS say they intend to veto any more business with British Nuclear Fuels unless the shipment of flawed plutonium fuel pellets delivered six months ago is returned to Britain.
A boycott of BNFL by its main foreign customer could force it to abandon plans for its controversial new £300m Mox (mixed-oxide) plant at Sellafield, putting the future of the company in doubt. The US and Europe are also bringing pressure to bear over falsification of data on the measurement of plutonium pellets.
Yesterday leaders in Fukui prefecture said that unless the company removes the tainted Mox shipment, which could take years to organise, they will block future shipments from Britain to the reactors in their region. This would amount to a blanket ban on BNFL activity in Japan.
The company said two automatic systems measured the pellets and found their diameter to be within specifications. Despite this, a German company has shut a reactor running on the fuel and Switzerland has joined Germany Japan and Sweden in banning further nuclear trade with Britain.
Returning the Mox to Sellafield would be nightmarishly complicated and expensive. The ship which brought the cargo to Japan required an escort of warships against potential nuclear hijackers and was dogged by environmental protests en route. A return journey would be even more difficult. Permission must be secured from all the governments - in Australia, South-east Asia and South Africa, through whose waters the ship must pass, and where, in light of BNFL's poor standing, opposition to its presence would be fierce.
Even if the fuel is removed it will by years before BNFLs credibility in Japan is restored. "We should have no more contact with BNFL," said Toshiyuki Tanaka, of Japan's ruling Liberal Democrat Party, which has a majority in the prefectural assembly. "Almost all of us … feel the same way."
The news from Japan will further discomfort BNFL executives, who were yesterday warned by Denmark and Iceland that they intend to invoke international treaty requirements on radiation emissions to halt production at Sellafield, citing discharges into the North Sea. This week the US administration also put BNFL on notice over it's safety record.
Now after a number of safety scandals, BNFL finds itself in an unusual position for a multi-billion pound European company: the survival of its Mox programme lies in the hands of 40 people in Fukui, an obscure prefecture on Japan's north-central coast. Fifteen of Japan's 51 nuclear reactors are in Fukui, including the Mox installation in the town of Takahama, run by the Kansai Electric Power Company. It was here that BNFL delivered the Mox pellets in the autumn.
In September The Independent disclosed that BNFL had faked results of safety checks on Mox fuel, although BNFL said the only fuel affected was still at Sellafleld. But within weeks it emerged that checks on the fuel sent to Takahama had also been falsified, to the fury of people there.
There was more dismay after visiting British officials from the Department of Trade and Industry and BNFL played down the scandal, saying it was a problem of "quality" rather than safety. In addition, the decisions by Germany and Switzerland to suspend business with BNFL have been reported locally and nationally.
In Takahama 2,000 people, a quarter of the adult population signed a petition demanding a referendum on the future of the programme. "The sentiment among local people and in the assembly is very much against BNFL, said Tomihisa Noda, assembly member
'Kansai Electric, the governor of Fukui, and the Japanese government have decided that the pellets be removed but they remain in Takahama. BNFL says it is "exploring all alternatives" to returning the Mox to Sellafield, but refuses to say what they are. The prefectural assembly members insist they will never permit the fuel to be used in Fukui. According to Japanese newspaper reports, talks between BNFL and Kansai Electric are deadlocked over the issue and over the compensation to be paid by the British company
THREE executives at British Nuclear Fuels (BNFL) criticised after a series of safety failures, managerial blunders and financial losses have received golden handshakes from the state-owned company totalling more than £850,000.
John Taylor, the former chief executive, Graham Watts, the group's former commercial director, and Ross Chiese, the former finance director, were awarded payouts of more than £250,000 each after resigning from their jobs, according to the company's annual report, published last week.
It emerged last September that workers checking the size of mixed uranium and plutonium oxide (Mox) fuel pellets at Sellafield in Cumbria made up the data on some batches. Inspectors said job cuts, which had been implemented by the board of directors despite warnings from unions, meant that the workers had not been properly supervised and safety had been undermined.
The falsification scandal led to losses of more than £ 100m. It has also put a question mark over the future of reprocessing at the Sellafield plant because of a crisis of confidence among foreign clients. While the four workers involved in falsifying data were dismissed without compensation, Taylor and Chiese, who were ousted after the scandal, received £300,000 and £277,000 respectively on top of their combined salaries of £460,000. Watts, a government appointee who resigned before the falsification was discovered, received a golden handshake of £274,000.
"These payouts are a high price for bringing a company to its knees," said John Kane, the GMB union convener at Sellafield. "When they announced job cuts, we warned them safety standards would suffer."
"I don't think the workers involved in the falsification of data really understood what was expected of them. Workers can't believe that they left with nothing while these managers get huge payouts."
Taylor, who joined BNFL in 1997 from the oil giant Exxon, originally said he would not resign, but later agreed to go. He refused to discuss his payoff last week when contacted at his £1 m Oxfordshire house.
Speaking from the doorway of his large detached house in Northwood, west London, Chiese said yesterday: "Quite what the finance officer has to do with safety I don't know. The Department of Trade and Industry wanted scapegoats and I was one of them."
Watts, Who bad previously been responsible for corporate marketing at British Airways, and Chiese, are believed to have left BNFL without any immediate prospect of similarly lucrative directorships.
The annual report shows that BNFL suffered losses of £337m last year — the worst in the company's history. More than a third of the losses were due to the falsification of the Mox data.
Senior executives are now worried about the future of a new £460m reprocessing plant at Sellafield. Japan has so far refused to place any orders for fuel, putting the project in jeopardy.
Fourteen months ago, senior BNFL managers were upbeat about the future of the company. It had notched up profits of more than £200m and was on course for a partial privatisation.
The Mox scandal, however, was a commercial disaster and exposed a series of safety failures. It culminated in a management clear-out announced in April this year. Switzerland, Japan, Germany and Sweden banned nuclear trade with Sellafield and the United States announced that "business as usual is over with BNFL".
I was credited with having "discovered that BNFL was paying the foreign office" to meet the costs of their secondee in the Tokyo embassy" (BNFL pays to put own man in Tokyo embassy, March 8). In fact I first learned of it at a public meeting in London on Monday. But I have long been concerned that the advice and information from the British Embassy in Tokyo has been unduly favourable to BNFL. When Thorp's fate was being discussed in the early 1990s, I found that officials in London had a lop-sided view that the Japanese government and industry were solidly behind Thorp.
As I knew this to be wrong, I wrote to the FO. I found that opinion in Tokyo was divided. One camp believed setbacks in Europe - "could give strength to nuclear opposition in Japan and make it even more difficult to proceed with the [Rokkashomura] reprocessing plants."
The other argued that - "Japanese nuclear and foreign policy interests are already being badly damaged by the coming expansion of reprocessing and that problems might be eased by the demise of European programmes."
I also pointed out that "when asked how Japan might react to a decision by the British government not to operate Thorp, the answer was usually the same — they would be accommodating providing that the British help them with spent fuel storage"
A main argument in Whitehall for allowing Thorp to operate was that Britain's relations with Japan would be jeopardised by its abandonment. I have never believed this. Any setback would have been temporary and many in Tokyo would have been relieved to find the "plutonium pressure" lifted. By precipitating the downfall of Rokkashomura, utilities would have saved a vast' amount of money and attention would have had to focus on developing realistic waste management policies. There is still a deal to be struck with Japan that would save everyone a great deal of bother while bringing BNFL safe profits. The spent fuel delivered to Sellafield would be stored there long-term, leaving the option of returning It later. The recent decision to return defective fuel to Britain can be seen as the opening maneuver in a belated effort by Japanese utilities to achieve a sensible outcome.
Prof William Walker University of St Andrews
The Government has finally agreed to take back a shipment of flawed Nuclear Fuel from Japan, seven months after British Nuclear Fuels (BNFL) admitted it had misled the Japanese about safety checks on its reprocessed plutonium pellets.
A high-level meeting between the two governments is scheduled for Tuesday when Anna Walker, director general of energy at the Department of Trade and Industry, is expected to agree to return of the shipment, at a cost of millions of pounds to the taxpayer.
Although BNFL and British government officials insisted yesterday that no final terms had been agreed, ministers are preparing the was for the return of the first and so far only consignment of mixed-oxide (Mox) fuel exported to Japan from the Sellafield reprocessing plant in Cumbria.
After initially denying there had been deliberate falsification of quality controlled data, BNFL admitted in December that safety information relating to the Mox consignment sent to the Takahama nuclear facility in central Japan had been fabricated.
The return of the fuel will involve elaborate negotiations with the United States - where the plutonium had originated - and the countries through whose territorial waters the armed escort ships and the cargo must pass. Britain will also face renewed protests from environmentalists who vigorously opposed the shipment in the first place, arguing that it was vulnerable to terrorist attack and a threat to wildlife.
Britain has agreed to take back the plutonium fuel from Japan which was the subject of a document falsification scandal.
The Japanese trade and industry ministry announced in Tokyo that Britain would take back the strings of plutonium fuel made at the British Nuclear Fuels plant in Sellafield last year.
Details of the deal have yet to be released but BNFL's chairman, Hugh Collum, told the MP's earlier this year that if it helped to restore the confidence of Japanese customers, the company would be prepared to accept the fuel back.
The company has a £300m plant to make similar mixed oxide fuel lying idle at Sellafield. Its main customer was supposed to be a Japan and the company had to prove to ministers that it had enough orders to justify opening the plant.
The scandal, followed by a scathing report from nuclear inspectors about the safety culture at the plant, caused the government to abandon plans to part privatize the company and a management restructuring to win back confidence in its operations. Yesterday the government and the BNFL would not comment except to confirm a deal was near. Paul Brown
Confidential report exposes £9 bn 'black hole' in company's accounts
British Nuclear Fuels, the state-owned atomic energy company which the Government plans to privatise, is facing bankruptcy after the discovery of a £9 billion black hole in its accounts.
A confidential internal report has exposed unexpected costs which bring the total long-term liabilities in BNFL accounts to up to £36 billion— which threatens the company with financial ruin and will be seen as the last nail in the coffin of privatisation plans and could lead to customers unilaterally revoking their contracts.
The disclosure will be a huge embarrassment to the Government, which was criticised last week by the cross-party Trade and Industry Select Committee for being ill-informed about BNFL and told to 'get a better grip' on the company's affairs.
The new liabilities are thought to relate to the costs of cleaning up the company's Sellafield site in Cumbria, where nuclear fuel is reprocessed and are between £7 billion and £9 billion, according to the report.
Although a share of the liabilities will be passed to BNFL customers and the rest can be spread over many decades, the immediate impact is to leave the company technically bankrupt. It means BNFL is £1·5 billion worse off than it thought — given that it had shareholders' funds of £600 million, the company now has a deficit of £900 million.
The problem was uncovered during a review conducted by the BNFL's Liabilities Management Unit. Industry insiders say the unit , staffed largely by executives from Magnox, the nuclear generator which was merged with BNFL last year, took a more rigorous approach to how easily and efficiently decommissioning and clean-up at the Sellafield site can be carried out.
The report will also fuel the debate over whether the site should be closed. BNFL was involved in controversy last year when it admitted falsifying quality checks on mixed oxide nuclear fuel sent to Japan. Since then the company has faced a barrage of criticism with calls from Denmark and Ireland to close down Sellafield and attempts by some of its major customers to renege on their contracts.
Sellafield discharges eight million litres of nuclear waste into the Irish Sea every day, according to scientists, making it the most radioactively contaminated sea in the world. It also releases 40 different types of radioactive substances into the sea and air.
This waste spreads along the Irish Sea towards the north coast of Scotland and on to Denmark, Norway and Sweden as far as the Arctic. Plutonium lodges in coastal mud and is carried inland by sea spray. Other forms of radiation enter the food chain through fish, lobster and seaweed. Ireland and Denmark will be joined by Iceland and Norway in calling for an immediate halt to reprocessing at a meeting from June 26-30 of OSPAR, the commission set up to protect the marine environment in the north-east Atlantic region.
Stephen Byers, the Trade and Industry Secretary, will be anxious to save BNFL from closure because it employs thousands of staff in marginal seats in the North West. Industry insiders expect ministers to attempt to bale out BNFL by issuing a 'letter of comfort' — a reassurance that it will not be allowed to go bust or that, should it do so, the Government will shoulder the liabilities. But a letter of comfort would be seen as state aid and could be blocked by the European Commission.
Moreover, the situation will generate debate among the company's critics over whether BNFL should be legally trading at all.
BNFL's supporters will argue that the figure is overstated as some of the liabilities on its sites will be shared with customers, including the Government. The company will also say that the figure of up to £36 billion is an 'undiscounted' number— that is, a paper liability which need not be paid for many decades. A fairer figure, they argue, is closer to £10·5 billion— the amount the company needs to ensure that its share of the costs will be covered as they arise.
BNFL declined last night to comment on any figures. A spokesman said: 'At the end of 1998 a substantial project was begun to examine in detail BNFL's future liabilities. It is the most complete review since BNFL's integration with Magnox Electric.
'The review is still in progress and the fully audited numbers, when they are available will be approved by the BNFL board before being made public as part of our reporting for 1999/2000 annual results. Until then it would be premature for BNFL to give further details of the review findings.'
BNFL is struggling to recover from criticism by the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate in February, which accused the firm of systematic management failures and a 'lack of safety culture.'
Last month it announced sweeping management changes, including the departure of senior directors.
British Nuclear Fuels is continuing to release a cancer-causing gas, krypton 85, more than 20 years after being instructed to stop. It also appears to have persuaded a Japanese company to do the same.
Kr85, a byproduct of nuclear fission, is being vented through chimneys when spent fuel is reprocessed at the Thorp plant in Cumbria. BNFL releases 250,000 terra becquerels of radioactivity a year, enough to cause two fatal skin cancers and 100 other cancers a year, said the national radiological protection board.
BNFL was first instructed to capture krypton by Mr. Justice Parker at the original inquiry into building the Thorp plant in 1977. The company would have had to store the gas in cylinders until an effective method of neutralising it was found. By 1994, however, when a new plant was built, the company had convinced the government that the £50m cost of capturing and storing the gas could not be justified.
BNFL was not let off the hook entirely and was instructed to keep looking for a viable method of capturing krypton and to record progress each year. Each October since, the company has reported failure, and it has now asked the environment agency for leave merely to review other people's research. The company also appears to have succeeded in preventing a competitor from fitting equipment to capture Kr85 to a plant being built in Japan.
A 1996 memorandum from Rupert Wilcox-Baker, senior public relations adviser to BNFL, has been passed to the Guardian because BNFL has this year applied officially to the environment agency to be allowed to continue its policy of "dilute and disperse'; which means allowing the gas to escape through tall chimneys over the north of England.
Dated March 22 1996, Mr Wilcox-Baker's memorandum to Matthew Simmonds, senior manager at Thorp, says: "What we sell or give Japanese Nuclear Fuels Ltd on Kr85 is a commercial decision. But what we must do is persuade them not to fit Kr85 removal equipment as this is damaging to our own position?'
He also says that the Japanese must include the "safety and environmental information that to capture krypton is less acceptable than releasing it to the environment'
The Japanese plant, which is not yet complete, will discharge a similar amount into the atmosphere as Thorp as a result of the advice. The Japanese gave the Guardian the same reason BNFL originally gave the government there exists no appropriate commercial technology".
BNFL said the company's position remained that it was better to release krypton rather than capture it. "It is an inert gas that does not enter the food chain. Doses to each individual are very small," a spokesman said. Capturing the gas presented problems because it was volatile and had to be kept under pressure, posing a risk to workers and the installation. It was better to dilute and disperse it into the atmosphere.
Martin Forwood, of Cumbrians Opposed to Radioactive Environment, said: "BNFL has had more than 20 years to come up with a solution to this problem ... I cannot believe that if they put the proper resources into it they could not have found a solution by now. From the memo it looks as though there is krypton removal equipment available but they are intent on persuading the Japanese not to fit it. They seem to have no wish to protect the global community from krypton."
A spokeswomen for the environment agency said BNFL discharges, including Kr85, were monitored under the agency's review of the company's discharge licence.
The Guardian: Monday 22 January 2001
Some parts of the Dounreay nuclear site will have to remain off limits for up to 300 years, the UK Atomic Energy Authority said yesterday, and reports from environmentalists that the plant has been "leaking like a sieve'.
But the UK Atomic Energy Authority says all the major radiological hazards would be removed within 25 years, as details were unveiled yesterday of the 60 year, £4bn plan to decommission the Caithness reprocessing plant. More than 2,000 jobs will be guaranteed over the next 20 years by the dean-up. Environmentalists welcomed yesterday's announcement but said the costs involved could be nearer £10bn. And they said pressure must be kept up to have the facility made as safe as possible.
There have been a number of safety scares at the plant since it was built in 1945. This year the UKAEA was fined a total of £101,000 for safety breaches at the plant after pleading guilty to three charges of contaminating workers with excessive doses of radiation in 1995.
It also admitted a separate charge relating to safety when a contractor accidentally dug through a main power cable, knocking out the electricity supply.
In 1998, an audit by the health and safety executive made 143 recommendations for Improvements.
Most recently, a study that was not made public for six years found that levels of plutonium in the homes of Dounreay workers were significantly higher than in other homes in the areas.
And since 1984 hundreds of radioactive particles have been found near the facility. In 1998 Donald Dewar, then Scottish secretary, announced the plant would close in 2004. At a press conference in Inverness yesterday, Dounreay director Peter Welsh said the decommissioning plan was intended to return the site to its pre-nuclear condition. Mr Welsh said that the 50- to 60-year plan for the programme was twice as fast as had been I previously envisaged.
The first stage will involve construction of up to 20 new-facilities at the site for waste treatment and processing of nuclear materials, as well as the decommissioning of existing redundant facilities such as the prototype fast reactor. By the end of the second stage, some 25 years hence, all major radiological hazards should have been removed.
One of the. biggest challenges will be the removal of waste from the Dounreay shaft, sunk in the 1950s and filled with radioactive material. It was closed and capped in 1977 after an explosion in the 220ft deep structure showered the area with radioactive material. Drilling work started in August to establish how best to empty and seal the shaft, a task expected to cost £355m.
However, it was not made clear yesterday what will happen to the 25 tonnes of radioactive spent fuel still stored at Dounreay.
The Department of Trade and Industry is assessing the best way to dispose of it, through storage, transferring it to Sellafield or re-processing it at Dounreay.
Lorraine Mann, of Scotland Against Nuclear Dumping, said the plant would continue to cast shadows over the area." They keep saying it is nothing to be concerned about but what they have there is extremely dangerous stuff and there is a pretty deep tide of real concern about it."
The environmental group Friends of the Earth says reprocessing would be the worst option. Scottish director Kevin Dunnion said: "It would be a tragedy if today's good news was undone by a DTI announcement to restart reprocessing."
Lord advocate queries 'justified' defence for Trident lab attack
Three anti-nuclear protesters who escaped a conviction for criminal damage by arguing that they were justified in trying to destroy illegal weapons of mass destruction will go back to court today in an important test case on whether international law can provide a defence in a UK criminal court.
Angela Zelter, Ellen Moxley and Ulla Roder boarded the floating laboratory Maytime, part of the Trident nuclear submarine programme, June 1999 and threw equipment worth several hundred thousand pounds into Loch Goil. The lab researches, tests and maintains Trident's abilityto remain undetected underwater.
The three were charged with criminal damage and sent for trial at Greenock sheriff court in October 1999. They admitted causing damage but argued they had no criminal intent. Their defence was that they were acting to prevent a greater crime by disarming illegal weapons of mass destruction.
Sheriff Margaret Gimblett directed the jury to acquit them. She ruled that there was no criminal intent in their action because it was based on a belief that they were acting against a continuing criminal conspiracy to contravene international humanitarian law.
Now the lord advocate, who heads Scotland's prosecution system, is challenging the surprise ruling in a five-day hearing which opens in the high court in Edinburgh today. He will use a device invoked in only around one case a year - the lord advocate's reference - to seek a decision that the in sheriff's ruling was legally wrong. In all six, cases in which the reference has been used so far, the high court judges ruled against the trial judge. The outcome of the case will not affect the women's acquittal but will establish a legal precedent for trial judges in future cases.
Ms Zelter is representing herself in the high court proceedings, while the other two will be represented by lawyers.
In 1996 the international court of justice, asked for an advisory opinion on the legality of nuclear weapons by the World Health Organisation, concluded: "The threat or use of nuclear weapons would generally be contrary to the rules of international law applicable in armed conflicts, and in particular the principles and rules of international law?
However, the opinion was limited to times of war.
The high court judges will have to decide the answers to four questions.
These are: whether evidence about international law can be given in a Scottish criminal prosecution; whether any rule of international law justifies damaging or destroying property because of an objection to nuclear weapons; whether defendants' belief that their actions were justified constitutes a defence; and whether the fact that an offence was committed to prevent a crime by another person is a general defence to a criminal charge. Even if the judges rule that such a defence cannot be used in future cases, there will be nothing to prevent juries acquitting if they sympathise with the defendants, even if they have no valid defence in law.
The women belong to Trident Ploughshares, a UK-based campaign whose members from 14 countries pledge to "prevent nuclear crime by engaging in peaceful acts of practical disarmament".
Atomic energy chiefs are preparing to announce how they intend to decommission the Dounreay nuclear reprocessing plant, in the north of Scotland, which is due to close in 2004. The decommissioning of the site is estimated to cost £4bn and is deemed likely to take as much as 60 years to complete.
Environmental lobbyists were yesterday putting pressure on the UK atomic energy authority, which owns die reprocessing plant, not to start reprocessing fuel as part of the shutdown procedure.
The Guardian: 9 October 2000
"The night Sellafield turned into a shooting gallery."
Paul Brown: Environment correspondent.
Boredom is recognised as a serious problem at nuclear facilities. It leads to staff becoming so torpid they fail to notice alarm lights flashing, as happened in the 1980's at the notorious Three Mile Island power plant accident in the US.
In the battle to stay awake workers are known to play games and indulge in dangerous pranks. But using the corridors of the giant plutonium reprocessing works at Sellafield as a shooting gallery was a step too far for British Nuclear Fuels.
When a target and expended rounds of plastic bullets were found inside the 'controlled area' of the high security £1.8bn facility on June 20, a full investigation was ordered. A gun had clearly been smuggled into the facility and out again, through some of the toughest security devices in Britain. The discovery came on top of a torrid few months for BNFL. The lack of safety culture had been criticised, data on plutonium fuel had been falsified, nuclear fuel had been sabotaged with screws, and police had failed to find who had cut the wires to five robotic arms in the waste plant, bringing the whole place to a halt. The orders went out that under no circumstances was the public to be told of the latest embarrassment.
A week later baffled management resorted to appealing to those responsible to own up. To their relief, two electricians stepped forward — they had in fact been 'testing' a gun to while away the long hours after repairing it in the plant's workshop during their night shift, and then taken it home again. They had neglected to clear up the spent rounds and the target.
Armed plant police believed the weapon to be an air rifle, and tracked down the gun, which fired plastic rounds. Worried that sackings might lead to unwanted publicity, BNFL reclassified the incident as a 'breach of discipline' rather than the more serious 'breach of security'. Last week the two men were severely reprimanded and taken off shift work for three years — something which involves considerable loss of earnings.
A spokesman for BNFL said the gun did fire plastic pellets, but it was not a serious gun. It was owned by one of the electricians' children and the father 'had brought it in for repair, and subsequently tested it inside the works'.
He added: 'In the end it was a toy, not a real gun, made of plastic, so it was a question of wasting company time rather than a security matter. Not the worst thing that has happened to us recently.'
Special report on the nuclear industry at: