Britain refuses to accept any suspect fuel back from Japan

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The Independent Online

The British Government is blocking Japanese demands that suspect nuclear fuel be returned to the UK, seven months after BNFL misled Japan about its safety, provoking an international scandal.

Britain is refusing to allow the flawed mixed-oxide (Mox) fuel to be shipped back to Sellafield, defying demands by the Japanese government, energy executives, and local NGOs, said Jeremy Rycroft, the company's head of marketing and planning. "The British Government's position is clear," he said. "It doesn't think it should take the fuel back."

The fate of the fuel has become a matter of international concern sinceThe Independent revealed last year that BNFL had misrepresented safety data for customers world-wide, including Japan's Kansai Electric Power Company (Kepco). By the time BNFL admitted the full extent of the falsification, the fuel had already been unloaded at the Takahama nuclear plant in central Japan.

BNFL's tardy admission of the falsification provoked outrage in Japan, and Kepco has refused to have any more dealings with the UK until the fuel is removed. Britain has already postponed its planned part-privatisation of BNFL, and without Japanese customers, the company will probably have to cancel its new £300m Mox plant in Sellafield.

The company came under more pressure yesterday when nuclear safety experts warned that it was unlikely to empty radioactive waste tanks at Sellafield on schedule. George Thompson, from the Institute for Resource and Security Studies in Massachusetts, told a conference in Ireland that BNFL would miss its 2015 deadline to empty the 1,300 litres of high-level waste, which contain 2,100kg of Caesium-137. Experts believe the 21 steel tanks are vulnerable to explosion through accidental contamination.

The government's refusal to take responsibility for the tainted fuel is jeopardising the company's future still further, Mr Rycroft said. "We would love to be able to help Kepco resolve the problem, but we are a government-owned organisation and we have to respect the Government's policy as well as looking after our customers."

Mr Rycroft's words are an embarrassment to the Government which, officially at least, has been careful not to provoke a diplomatic row by ruling out the possibility of bringing the fuel back to Britain. During a visit to Japan last week, the British Foreign Office minister, John Battle, repeated the line that various options were open, "including ... possible return to the UK". In May, a high level delegation of British officials will travel to Japan armed with an "options paper" which they will discuss with the Japanese government and Kepco.

But Mr Rycroft's remarks suggest that this is a charade, and Britain has already decided not to ship the fuel back, a fraught procedure that would take months or even years to complete. Such is the radioactivity of the Mox, that the ship carrying it must be escorted by gunships to protect against potential nuclear hijackers. Negotiations must also be conducted with the governments through whose territorial waters the convoy passes. On its journey to Takahama, it was dogged by environmental and diplomatic protests.

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