Kansai Electric Power rejects BNFL’s MOX fuel

1 March 2000

Kansai Electric Power has insisted it wants the MOX fuel BNFL delivered to its Takahama PWR plant returned to Sellafield. Since the fuel arrived last September, it had been found that data on measurements of the fuel pellets’ diameters had been falsified. Kansai’s decision comes in spite of officials from the UK Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) and BNFL management travelling to Japan to offer a “sincere apology” to Kansai and to officials within Japan’s Ministry of International Trade and Industry.

Anna Walker, the DTI’s director general of energy, led the mission and presented a report produced by Nuclear Installation Inspectorate (NII) officials which provides a detailed analysis of how the false data went unnoticed at Sellafield’s MOX Demonstration Facility (MDF), where the fuel was fabricated.

The report concludes that the data falsification involved “a systematic management failure which allowed individuals to falsify data on pellet diameter measurements.” Contributory factors included poor ergonomic design, the tedium of the job and the ease with which the computer data logging system could be manipulated. The report also stressed that although false data had been recorded there is no suggestion that the fuel delivered to Kansai is dangerous to use.

Recommendations include rectifying the deficiencies in the quality control process, improving management within the MDF and replacing operators.

The MDF is currently closed and the NII has made clear it will not allow it to reopen until the recommendations it makes in the report are implemented.

“There are a number of lessons to be learnt,” said Mark Wheeler, a NII representative, “and some of the issues involve management supervision. The report makes it quite clear management has been found wanting as well as front line staff.” BNFL has dismissed five operators who worked in the MDF, but so far no management personnel have taken any responsibility. Sellafield union representatives argue the workers are being made scapegoats and are bringing cases of unfair dissmissal.

As a result of the scandal it is unlikely Japan will accept MOX fuel from BNFL for a significant period of time. Without a reliable demand for MOX from Japan it is difficult to justify economically the opening of a full scale MOX production plant at Sellafield. The plant has been built and is currently awaiting approval from the UK’s environment minister Michael Meacher.

The economic implications could also have a knock-on effect on government plans to part privatise BNFL. But Stephen Byers, UK trade and industry secretary has argued that the incident strengthens the case for privatisation.

“The events of the last few weeks have made it even more imperative that we bring in the discipline of private sector management,” he told the House of Commons trade and industry select committee.

“We are taking all the steps we can to ensure that BNFL and the people who work there are not damaged by the actions of a few people. The events show a fundamental flaw in the management at BNFL and that has to change.”

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