New crisis hits Sellafield as Germans say BNFL 'lied'

Click to follow
The Independent Online

The German government has accused British Nuclear Fuels of lying about the outcome of a recent meeting between its officials and the company's senior representatives.

In an unprecedented attack on the British company's credibility, the German Environment Ministry said that BNFL had lied when it said, in a press statement, that Germany had agreed to lift its ban on importing reprocessed nuclear fuel from the Sellafield plant in Cumbria. The accusation, which BNFL denies, comes at a time when the company isunder renewed pressure from Ireland and Scandinavian countries to end its waste reprocessing operation at Sellafield.

Joe Jacob, the Irish energy minister, said yesterday that the British Government could be forced to close Sellafield by the end of June, under proposals that are to go before an international body which monitors marine pollution.

Denmark has tailored a similar proposal under the Ospar convention, to which Britain is a signatory, and - if it gets the necessary backing when the 15 parties to the agreement meet in June - Britain will be forced to act. Mr Jacob said: "Successive Irish governments have been attempting to close [Sellafield] for a long time but never with such a background of international opposition to it. I think it is going to be very difficult to say no to us this time."

German allegations that BNFL has lied will not enhance the company's reputation as one that can be trusted with such a controversial operation as that at Sellafield.

BNFL issued a press statement in German following the meeting on 16 March between its officials and the German Environment Ministry. The BNFL statement said the ministry "served notice that it would lift the import ban of Mox [mixed oxide] fuel elements ... following authorisation by [Britain's] Health and Safety Executive allowing resumption of manufacturing [of Mox fuel]." However, the German Environment Ministry declared over the weekend that this was incorrect. "BNFL's press release is as reliable as its forged test results," the ministry said.

"In no way did the Environment Ministry suggest a lifting of the import ban, introduced at the beginning of March, of Mox fuel elements manufactured by the British nuclear facility at Sellafield," it said.

BNFL said last night that it was "very disappointed" by the German Environment Ministry's statement. A spokesman said: "BNFL's view of the outcome of those discussions is as we stated in our press response on the same day."

The meeting between Jeremy Rycroft, the commercial director of BNFL's Thorp Group, and German environment officials was conducted, in English, to discuss the suspension of nuclear trade following the scandal which was uncovered by The Independent over falsified records relating to the Mox fuel rods.

The English version of the BNFL statement that was issued after the meeting does not include a reference to the German Environment Ministry agreeing to lift the import ban on Mox fuel. BNFL's English statement said: "At the conclusion of the meeting, BMU [the German Environment Ministry] stated that if the Mox Demonstration Facility (MDF) was re-opened with the authorisation of the UK's Health and Safety Executive (HSE), they could see no reason why BNFL could not apply for an import licence for Mox fuel again in the normal way,"

However, BNFL in Germany issued a different interpretation based on the wording of a memorandum it had asked its UK operation to agree to. The memo said: "BMU made the positive announcement that once the authorisation by HSE for the resumption of production of MDF was available, BMU could not see any reason for not lifting the current 'import stop' for Mox fuel from MDF announced by BMU."

The German government's accusations that BNFL is lying mirrors charges made by the British Government over BMW's role in the sale of the Rover car group and some commentators suggest there may be a political reason why the Environment Ministry issued its own counter-attack a week after BNFL had issued its press response.

Downing Street was drawn into the row when a spokesman said that the plant had to "raise its game" in the light of recent safety concerns. The Prime Minister's official spokesman said: "They are operating in a commercial environment. They have got to meet the serious demands of their customers."