LONDON – The British government and British Nuclear Fuels Ltd. are split over what to do with a controversial consignment of plutonium fuel stored at a reactor in Takahama, Fukui Prefecture, according to a BNFL official.
Jeremy Rycroft, head of marketing and planning at BNFL’s Sellafield plant in northwestern England, said that while the state-owned company wants to return the fuel to Britain, London disagrees — fearing a negative reaction from the British public should it do so.
Since December, the two governments have been discussing what to do with the mixed uranium-plutonium fuel at the Takahama plant’s No. 4 reactor after it was discovered that workers at BNFL’s Sellafield plant had falsified quality assurance data on the consignment.
The Japanese government and the Takahama plant’s operator, Kansai Electric Power Co., want the fuel returned to Britain. They say BNFL can do no more business in Japan, the company’s most valuable overseas market, until the problem is resolved.
A delegation of British government officials is to fly to Japan in May to discuss two basic options for the fuel. One option is to return the fuel to Britain in order to salvage some of the material so it can be used again, and the other is to store it in Japan.
In an interview at BNFL’s Warrington headquarters in Cheshire, northwest England, Rycroft said: “Yes, there’s a difference in position between BNFL and the government. The British government’s position is clear. It doesn’t think it should take the fuel back.
“I believe the government thinks that it (the return) would be seen negatively by the population. People might ask, ‘If the U.K. is taking back some fuel, what’s it going to do with it?’
“We would love to be able to help Kepco resolve the problem, but we are a government-owned organization and we have to respect the government’s policy as well as looking after our customers,” Rycroft said.
“At the moment, a delicate discussion is going on to look at these technical options for the fuel and to look at the political implications of them and try and find some common ground between the two governments and two companies,” he said.
BNFL said recently it would be prepared to take back the fuel if that were necessary to restore customer confidence. Rycroft, however, said the government “would have a major say” and a number of options were being considered.
He conceded that he “couldn’t see a precise way through” the apparent impasse between the two governments but remained optimistic that a solution would be reached.
Asked whether London might change its mind if BNFL could have the fuel’s return to Britain coincide with another shipment of MOX fuel to Japan in order to save costs, he replied, “Maybe, if there are future business prospects that will help ease the situation.”
Despite the setback to trade with Japan, Rycroft expressed confidence that once the issues of returning the fuel and compensation to Kepco have been agreed upon, BNFL will be able to restore and increase its business with Japan.
He said: “In November and December, BNFL was having talks with other Japanese utility companies and now everything is on hold. Until we sort out the issue with Kepco, our view is that it’s not fair to expect other utility companies to make commitments with us. But once we have satisfied Kepco, I’m quite sure that we will open discussions with at least three of the large Japanese utility companies on MOX.”
Since the discovery in September that data on fuel destined for the No. 3 reactor at Takahama had been falsified, the MOX production plant at Sellafield has been shut down and will be allowed to reopen only when it has satisfied Britain’s Nuclear Installations Inspectorate.
Rycroft said all the staff had undergone retraining and the process of checking MOX pellets had been fully automated.
Four workers have been sacked as a result of the falsification, and Rycroft said he could not rule out further dismissals.
As for the Sellafield complex, Rycroft said: “The new managing director, Norman Askew, has been personally involved in developing the new management structure. Some managers will move and certain people will lose their jobs.”
But Rycroft said he is unaware of any planned boardroom changes.
A report by Britain’s NII in February showed “systematic management failures” at Sellafield.