Swiss find serious faults in British nuclear fuel

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The nuclear safety authority in Switzerland confirmed yesterday that it had discovered serious faults with controversial mixed plutonium-uranium oxide (Mox) fuel supplied by British Nuclear Fuels.

The nuclear safety authority in Switzerland confirmed yesterday that it had discovered serious faults with controversial mixed plutonium-uranium oxide (Mox) fuel supplied by British Nuclear Fuels.

The revelation that grave problems were found with BNFL's Mox fuel after it was loaded into a Swiss reactor is another blow to the credibility of its main product. Last week BNFL apologised to the Japanese government after it emerged that the company had made false assurances on the quality of its Mox fuel.

The Swiss Federal Nuclear Safety Inspectorate said that three Mox fuel assemblies supplied by BNFL in 1996 were found to be damaged a year after they were loaded into the Beznau 1 reactor. A further nine rods had to be removed forchecks two years earlier than had been planned.

Sources in BNFL have told The Independent that the Mox fuel sent to Beznau was checked at the Sellafield plant in Cumbria by the same three BNFL employees who were sacked for allegedly falsifying quality data.

Serge Pretre, director of the Swiss inspectorate, confirmed that an examination of one damaged fuel rod revealed that it had a manufacturing fault, although he believed this was unconnected with the issue of falsification of quality-control data.

"From what I know of the damage it doesn't seem to be a quality-assurance problem," Dr Pretre said. "We are aware of the problems and have asked the authorities in London to get more information on this case."

The operator of Beznau 1, Switzerland's north-eastern electricity utility NOK, had run a check on the fuel and reloaded it into the reactor before the Mox falsification scandal came to light in September.

Dr Pretre said he had been in touch with Britain's Nuclear Installations Inspectorate (NII) to try to find out more about the quality-control checks on the Beznau 1 fuel. "We were trying to know if [the fuel] was affected by this falsification." No clear answer has yet been received, he said.

However, a spokesman for the NII said last night that an investigation had revealed that some of the quality assurance data relating to the Mox fuel sent to Beznau was questionable. He said the inspectorate had contacted the Swiss regulators and informed them that suspect data should not affect the safe operation of the fuel.

BNFL said last night that the difficulties at Beznau were not connected with the Mox fuel pellets, but with the fuel pins into which they are loaded. "Nuclear reactors each contain many thousands of fuel pins and the nature of the Beznau problem is a fairly common occurrence with no safety implications," a spokesman said.

Government ministers are irritated with BNFL's repeated reassurances that its acknowledged falsification problems at Sellafield did not affect the first Mox fuel shipment to Japan, which arrived earlier this month.

Helen Liddell, the energy minister, has apologised in person to Japan's ambassador in London for BNFL's mistakes. She is also sending a senior civil servant to Japan in January to show that the Government is taking the matter seriously.

Shaun Bernie of Greenpeace International said that BNFL had again been shown to produce poor-quality, dangerous nuclear fuel. "There are clearly no limits to the extent of BNFL mismanagement when plutonium is involved. All plutonium Mox fuel production should be cancelled," he said.

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