Crisis talks after Sellafield safety alert

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The Independent Online
JAPANESE NUCLEAR experts flew to Britain for crisis talks with British Nuclear Fuels last night following The Independent's disclosure that safety records at the company's Sellafield plant in Cumbria had been faked.

BNFL halted production and suspended several staff after admitting discovery of "falsification" of quality control records at a facility producing mixed oxide (MOX) fuel, a mixture of uranium and recycled plutonium, for export.

It insisted the MOX was safe, in spite of the falsifications, but it was a reassurance that fell on deaf ears in Fukui Prefecture, the district housing the two nuclear power plants earmarked to use the fuel. The governor, Yukio Kurita, called on the Japanese government and the operator, the Kansai Electricity Power Company (Kepco), to investigate BNFL's safety data.

If BNFL fails to satisfy four experts sent to examine its MOX production - one from Kepco and three from Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd - the ramifications for the company could be catastrophic.

Its future is largely dependent upon the sale of MOX to Japan. It produces small amounts of the fuel in pellets at its MOX Demonstration Facility (MDF) at Sellafield, but much of its future is pinned on mass-producing MOX at a pounds 300m plant awaiting a licence from the British government.

Yesterday, a representative from the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate visited the plant to examine safety procedures.

The irregularities at the MDF relate to the production of MOX ceramic pellets. These are made unde controlled conditions and inserted in zirconium alloy rods which are sealed and loaded into an assembly. Each assembly comprises 196 rods approximately 1.25cm in diameter and about 3.5m long. In a reactor, the assemblies produce enormous power for up to four years. One 6 gramme pellet 1cm long contains the equivalent energy of one tonne of coal. But the precise dimensions of the pellets must be checked regularly to ensure a safe fit inside the rods. BNFL discovered some checks were falsified.

A spokesman for Greenpeace said: "BNFL says these shipments, of 40 assemblies, have been safely checked. Greenpeace's concern is that terrorists could steal them and extract weapons-grade plutonium from the MOX."