Britain: British Nuclear Fools Ltd

April 5, 2000


Britain: British Nuclear Fools Ltd

The future of the Sellafield plant, operated by British Nuclear Fuels Limited (BNFL) in northern England, is in jeopardy following safety lapses, cover-ups, an act of sabotage by a BNFL employee, economic problems, and growing public and governmental opposition in Europe.

Sellafield manufactures nuclear fuel rods, reprocesses irradiated (spent) nuclear fuel from nine countries and treats and stores radioactive wastes.

In 1999, a scandal erupted when it was revealed that BNFL staff had failed to carry out safety checks on plutonium/uranium reactor fuel (MOX) which was sent to Japan. Japan's Ministry of International Trade and Industry and the Kansai Electric Power Company (KEPCO) have demanded that Britain take back the MOX shipment which had not been properly checked.

BNFL and KEPCO have yet to resolve whether the MOX will be returned or what compensation will be paid by BNFL. Japan has banned all shipments from Sellafield, and the future of BNFL's contracts with Japan, the company's largest customer, is in doubt.

BNFL claimed the falsification of data was a quality control issue, not one of safety. However the March 7 Independent cites BNFL sources stating that management allowed substandard MOX pellets to be certified as safe in order to boost production of MOX.

On March 7, the chief of the British Nuclear Installations Inspectorate (NII) admitted that he was not told of changes to the way BNFL checks the specification of MOX pellets and that he first learnt of the changes in the Independent.

According to KEPCO, BNFL has also admitted that two MOX fuel rods were rejected during the manufacturing process because they contained screws and pieces of concrete.

Political fallout spreads

In February it was revealed that the falsification of MOX safety data had been taking place for at least three years. MOX sent to Germany in 1996, and Switzerland in 1997, is known to have been subject to falsified safety checks. A German reactor using suspect MOX fuel has been shut down.

Switzerland, Sweden and Germany have joined Japan in suspending irradiated fuel reprocessing and/or MOX contracts with BNFL.

BNFL tried at one point to claim that Germany had agreed to lift its ban on importing reprocessed nuclear fuel from Sellafield, a claim rejected by the German environment ministry which said it had done no such thing and accused BNFL of lying. "BNFL's press release is as reliable as its forged test results", the ministry said.

British Energy, the privatised nuclear power utility which accounts for a third of Sellafield's reprocessing contracts, is considering shifting from reprocessing to waste storage and plans to renegotiate its contracts with BNFL.

A coalition of more than 40 environmental and anti-nuclear groups in the United States is demanding that the US government suspend nuclear waste reprocessing contracts with BNFL and bar the company from competing for US business in future.

A disaffected BNFL employee — whose identity has not yet been discovered — disabled arms on several robots in February. The robots are used to seal high-level liquid waste in molten glass, before cooling and burial in concrete for storage. The vitrification plant was closed for three days.

The Irish energy minister met his Danish counterpart on March 27 to formulate legal moves to ban waste discharges from Sellafield. They will put their demands to Scandinavian countries at a conference in Copenhagen in June. Five Scandinavian countries have demanded that Britain stop all radioactive discharges into the Irish Sea from Sellafield.


The Nuclear Installations Inspectorate has admitted that its capacity to carry out routine inspections at BNFL nuclear facilities has been undermined by the company's preparation for privatisation, which it stated was also a key reason for the "systematic management failures" at Sellafield.

The NII has given BNFL until mid-April to develop a strategy to improve safety or risk the closure of some or all of its operations.

Tony Blair's Labour government had announced plans to privatise 49% of BNFL before the next election, due before May 2002. While the push to privatise BNFL will continue, the government announced on March 30 that privatisation will not occur before late 2002 at the earliest.

Blair said in parliament on March 30 that he is "quite sure" that "BNFL can go back on a sound and secure footing for the future". The British government announced on March 29 that the £2.2 billion contract to produce Britain's Trident nuclear warheads at Aldermaston, awarded to a BNFL-led consortium in December, would go ahead as planned despite the recent scandals.

Notwithstanding strong support from Blair and others in the British government, the future of Sellafield remains uncertain. Public and political opposition, combined with poor economic prospects, is likely to result in a major downgrading or cessation of BNFL's MOX production facilities (a pilot plant and a £300 million plant which has yet to begin operating) and the £1.8 billion Thorp reprocessing plant, which began operating in the mid 1990s.

The Thorp reprocessing plant and the yet-to-be-used MOX plant were built before BNFL had obtained a licence to operate them. According to the March 30 Guardian, BNFL calculated that, after spending £2.1 billion of taxpayers' money, the government would not reject its schemes. "When governments breed white elephants", the Guardian's reporter George Monbiot noted, "the public gets trampled".

BNFL has 10,500 employees — about 6,000 of them working at Sellafield — and an annual turnover of about £2 billion pounds. Major staff cuts are likely in the coming years, whether resulting from government directions to scale back BNFL's operations, the failure to secure business, or rationalisations associated with the planned privatisation.

An alternative future for BNFL and Sellafield is possible. A petition tabled in the British House of Commons calls on the Blair government to direct BNFL to become "a world leader in nuclear clean-up, decommissioning, waste management and plutonium immobilisation technologies", and to renegotiate current contracts for reprocessing irradiated fuel into contracts for dry storage.


You need Green Left, and we need you!

Green Left is funded by contributions from readers and supporters. Help us reach our funding target.

Make a One-off Donation or choose from one of our Monthly Donation options.

Become a supporter to get the digital edition for $5 per month or the print edition for $10 per month. One-time payment options are available.

You can also call 1800 634 206 to make a donation or to become a supporter. Thank you.