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Tuesday, September 14, 1999

CONTACT: Dr. Edwin Lyman
(202) 822-8444


Fuel May be Untested, Defective

Washington, DC --- The Japanese utility Kansai Electric Power Co. (KEPCO) will risk an environmental catastrophe if it attempts to load potentially defective plutonium (MOX) fuel manufactured in the United Kingdom into one of its nuclear power plants, the Nuclear Control Institute (NCI) cautioned today. Instead, it should immediately send the fuel back at the expense of the producer, British Nuclear Fuels Limited (BNFL).

Two ships loaded with MOX fuel are currently en route from Europe to Japan. One ship contains eight fuel assemblies, intended for use in the Takahama No. 4 plant in Fukui Prefecture, that were manufactured at BNFL's MOX Demonstration Facility (MDF) at Sellafield. According to a report in Tuesday's Independent newspaper, employees at MDF violated quality control procedures by falsifying size data for at least ten lots of MOX fuel pellets. Although BNFL claims that the MOX fuel in the current shipment was not affected, this incident raises doubts about the credibility of its entire quality control system. The quality of all the MOX fuel produced at MDF is therefore subject to question.

"The use of MOX fuel is dangerous under the best of circumstances, but without stringent quality control the risk of a severe accident is even higher," said NCI Scientific Director Dr. Edwin Lyman. "In addition to the dimensions of MOX pellets, there are dozens of parameters which must be precisely specified. If these parameters are not accurately measured, a reactor operator cannot have confidence that the fuel will behave as expected when irradiated. Unusual power peaking or excessive fuel rod cladding failures are just two of the many safety problems that could result. This could have a negative impact on the ability of an operator to effectively intervene in the event of an accident."

Ensuring the quality of MOX fuel is especially crucial because the consequences of a severe loss-of-containment accident can be significantly greater for a nuclear plant using MOX fuel in place of low-enriched uranium (LEU) fuel. In a letter sent in February of this year, NCI informed Governor Kimura of Fukui Prefecture of the results of a calculation indicating that the number of cancer fatalities that would result from such an accident at the Takahama plant would be more than twice as high if the plant were operating with a quarter-core of MOX fuel instead of an all-LEU core.

KEPCO announced today that it will carry out its own investigation of the fuel scheduled to arrive in Japan next week. In response, Dr. Lyman said that "KEPCO is wise to reject BNFL's empty assurances of the quality of the MOX fuel in the current shipment. However, instead of attempting to qualify that the fuel meets all the technical specifications, KEPCO should simply return the shipment to Sellafield at BNFL's expense. This is not too great a price for BNFL to pay for its falsification of data."

For more information, visit NCI's World-Wide Web site:

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