BRITISH NUCLEAR Fuels is fighting for its survival after the Japanese government said yesterday that it has lost trust in the company and will not accept nuclear fuel sent from Britain.
The collapse of confidencecame as evidence emerged that BNFL's employees had falsified safety data relating to highly dangerous mixed plutonium oxide (Mox) fuel sent earlier this year to Japan.
Although BNFL has already admitted that three of its employees falsified data on Mox fuel awaiting export from its reprocessing plant in Sellafield, Cumbria, the company has denied on at least four occasions that the fraud extended to the fuel already in Japan.
However, it admitted yesterday that these assurances were premature and that investigations have now revealed that at least three lots of fuel pellets in Japan contain "irregularities" which indicate data falsification.
The three BNFL employees sacked for allegedly falsifying Mox data worked on both the consignment in Japan and on an earlier batch of Mox fuel assemblies now loaded in a reactor at Beznau, Switzerland.
Kansai Electric, the Japanese customer which received the eight fuel assemblies, decided yesterday to postpone indefinitely the loading of the Mox fuel into its Takahama 4 power station.
In uncharacteristically strong language, Takashi Fukaya, Japan's Industry Minister, said that until BNFL is able to "restore its trustworthiness", the Japanese government will not allow it to export any more Mox fuel to Japan. "The problem related to the Mox fuel is deplorable," Mr Fukaya said. "We have to say we're losing trust in BNFL,"
Japan is BNFL's most important customer and without it the company will find it hard to justify the pounds 300m it has invested in the giant Mox manufacturing facility at Sellafield, which is potentially its most profitable business.
The crisis could not come at a worst time for BNFL. Commentators argue that if the Government turns down the application to open the facility it will end plans for part-privatisation of the company and could lead to its demise.
BNFL launched a damage-limitation exercise yesterday with a statement saying that it "supports" Kansai's decision not to load the Mox fuel and is working with its customers on a way forward, which may involve the shipment of the Mox fuel back to Britain using the two gunships that took it to Japan last October.
After The Independent first revealed in September that BNFL employees had falsified Mox data, BNFL admitted that 22 fuel lots had fallen victim to a scam that appears to have been perpetrated merely to avoid a laborious checking procedure.
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