Kepco urged to explain MOX mess

by Eric Johnston

OSAKA — Fearful that history will repeat itself, antinuclear groups are calling on Kansai Electric Power Co. to provide data on a batch of mixed uranium and plutonium oxide (MOX) fuel now being processed in France.

But the utility, which is still reeling from disclosures last year that data related to a shipment of MOX fuel from Britain was falsified, is so far refusing to answer questions about the French fuel, which activists in Japan and France say could be shipped to Japan within the next few years.

Nearly eight months after British Nuclear Fuels Ltd. admitted that data for a shipment of MOX that arrived for Kepco’s Takahama nuclear plant in Fukui Prefecture had been falsified, Kepco officials held a public symposium to explain what happened.

While admitting that their quality-control procedures were lax, firm officials said new control guidelines went into place earlier this year.

These include on-site inspections by Kepco officials at MOX production plants, as well as better communication with the manufacturer. The company also promised to make public as much information about future MOX shipments as possible.

The MOX fuel is now sitting in Takahama, awaiting return to Britain, which is expected to take place within the next few years, after the return shipping route is approved. In the meantime, concern is growing over the next planned shipment of MOX fuel, this time from the Cogema nuclear fuel manufacturing plant in France.

Kepco has contracts with France for 32 MOX assemblies, of which 16 are now being produced. Like the BNFL fuel, each assembly consists of thousands of MOX pellets.

Original plans called for delivery of 16 assemblies, eight for the Takahama No. 3 plant and eight for the Takahama No. 4 plant. Production began in November but was halted for unexplained reasons in February, and then was believed to have been restarted in the spring.

“The fuel was originally supposed to have been finished by now, but the exact status is unclear at the moment,” said Stephen Ready, a Canadian antinuclear activist.

During the recent symposium, Kyoto-based antinuclear activist Aileen Smith pushed Kepco to release information about the Cogema MOX and demanded explanations as to how they could guarantee the BNFL debacle would not be repeated.

“The problem is that Kepco’s new quality-control standards went into effect after Cogema began manufacturing MOX. Kepco said it will conduct a hands-on inspection after a company is judged qualified to manufacture MOX, but Cogema was not put through this process,” Smith said.

Kepco officials had no answers, saying only that they would consult with Cogema officials about when and how much data to release. They refused to answer questions about when the French fuel might be shipped to Japan.

Activists, however, say it is politically impossible to bring in a new shipment of MOX until the current one is returned to Britain.

There is also the question of whether the Fukui Prefectural Government will agree. Even MOX supporters in the prefectural assembly, who are in the majority, are angry with the way Kepco, the Nuclear Safety Commission and the central government handled the BNFL MOX issue.

Both Kepco and the activists agree that convincing the prefectural assembly to accept another batch of MOX will be exceedingly difficult.

Kepco and the central government say that they remain committed to the MOX program, which calls for MOX fuel to be used in 16 to 18 reactors nationwide by 2010, and that they see the BNFL scandal as a temporary setback. The rationale is that MOX is a cheaper, more efficient alternative to uranium that will help reduce Japan’s reliance on foreign oil and natural gas in the long run.

But activists say that if reducing foreign dependence on energy is the government’s main worry, conservation, not MOX, is the answer.

“Our estimates show that if some towns in Japan reduce their electric energy consumption between 1 percent and 3 percent, there would be no need for them to rely on nuclear power,” Smith said.