Sellafield crisis deepens as Japan signals the end of BNFL contract

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Japanese politicians say they intend to veto any more business with British Nuclear Fuels unless the shipment of flawed plutonium fuel pellets delivered six months ago is returned to Britain.

A boycott of BNFL by its main foreign customer could force it to abandon plans for its controversial new £300m Mox (mixed-oxide) plant at Sellafield, putting the future of the company in doubt. The US and Europe are also bringing pressure to bear over falsification of data on the measurement of plutonium pellets.

Yesterday leaders in Fukui prefecture said that unless the company removes the tainted Mox shipment, which could take years to organise, they will block future shipments from Britain to the reactors in their region. This would amount to a blanket ban on BNFL activity in Japan.

The company said two automatic systems measured the pellets and found their diameter to be within specifications. Despite this, a German company has shut a reactor running on the fuel and Switzerland has joined Germany, Japan and Sweden in banning further nuclear trade with Britain.

Returning the Mox to Sellafield would be nightmarishly complicated and expensive. The ship which brought the cargo to Japan required an escort of warships against potential nuclear hijackers and was dogged by environmental protests en route.

A return journey would be even more difficult. Permission must be secured from all the governments - in Australia, South-east Asia and South Africa - through whose waters the ship must pass, and where, in light of BNFL's poor standing, opposition to its presence would be fierce.

Even if the fuel is removed, it will be years before BNFL's credibility in Japan is restored. "We should have no more contact with BNFL," said Toshiyuki Tanaka, of Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party, which has a majority in the prefectural assembly. "Almost all of us ... feel the same way."

The news from Japan will further discomfort BNFL executives, who were yesterday warned by Denmark and Iceland that they intend to invoke international treaty requirements on radiation emissions to halt production at Sellafield, citing discharges into the North Sea. This week the US administration also put BNFL on notice over its safety record.

Now, after a number of safety scandals, BNFL finds itself in an unusual position for a multi-billion pound European company: the survival of its Mox programme lies in the hands of 40 people in Fukui, an obscure prefecture on Japan's north-central coast. Fifteen of Japan's 51 nuclear reactors are in Fukui, including the Mox installation in the town of Takahama, run by the Kansai Electric Power Company. It was here in autumn that BNFL delivered Mox pellets.

In September The Independent disclosed that BNFL had faked results of safety checks on Mox fuel, although BNFL said the only fuel affected was still at Sellafield. But within weeks it emerged that checks on the fuel sent to Takahama had also been falsified, to the fury of people there.

There was more dismay after visiting British officials from the Department of Trade and Industry and BNFL played down the scandal, saying it was a problem of "quality" rather than safety. In addition, the decisions by Germany and Switzerland to suspend business with BNFL have been reported locally and nationally.

In Takahama 2,000 people - a quarter of the adult population - signed a petition demanding a referendum on the future of the programme. "The sentiment among local people and in the assembly is very much against BNFL," said Tomihisa Noda, an opposition assembly member.

Kansai Electric, the governor of Fukui, and the Japanese government have demanded that the pellets be removed, but they remain in Takahama. BNFL says it is exploring "alternatives" to returning the Mox to Sellafield, but refuses to say what they are. The prefectural assembly members insist they will never permit the fuel to be used in Fukui. According to Japanese newspaper reports, talks between BNFL and Kansai Electric are deadlocked over the issue and over the compensation to be paid by the British company.

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