BNFL has quietly been obtaining Mixed Oxide (MOX) fuel from one of its main competitors so that it can fulfil an order for the controversial nuclear by-product.
The state-owned nuclear group has admitted that it has been forced to subcontract the supply of MOX fuel for a German customer, believed to be the giant utility E.On, because of delays in getting its controversial £473m MOX plant into production. In effect, it has been buying fuel from Cogema, the French nuclear group which is its main rival, to ship to Germany.
A spokesperson for BNFL said: "The Sellafield MOX plant has been delayed by the legislative process and by engineering modifications, so we have not been able to meet all our short-term commitments for MOX fuel."
BNFL would not confirm how much this subcontracting will cost it, but environmental groups have estimated it could be as much as £20m.
This is the second time BNFL has failed to make a shipment of MOX. It had to ask Cogema to step into the breach last year to cover an order for Nordostschweizerische Kraftwerke (NOK), the Swiss utility.
The next key shipment for BNFL is also NOK, which needs the MOX fuel before June next year. If BNFL has to ask Cogema to cover that contract, it will destroy the credibility of its MOX plant.
The facility was developed in the late 1990s to turn spent nuclear fuel into a new product that can be used for reactors which are about to be closed down.
The development of the plant was always controversial and the project was only completed after a report was commissioned into the plant's viability from consultants Arthur D Little.
The study concluded that given the sunk costs up until then, it was better to carry on with the project rather than scrap it altogether.
The problems at the MOX plant coincide with the crisis brewing at the £1.8bn Thorp reprocessing plant, which is next door in the Sellafield complex. Difficulties dealing with waste from Thorp have forced BNFL to renegotiate reprocessing contracts with customers, many of whom are the same utilities that are supposed to be buying MOX fuel from BNFL.
The Government recently announced it was scrapping plans to part privatise the troubled nuclear group.
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