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BNFL lowered safety standards to boost nuke fuel output

Source: Kyodo News Service/Associated Press Publication date: Mar 07, 2000

LONDON, March 7 (Kyodo) -- British Nuclear Fuels PLC (BNFL) deliberately lowered its safety standards in order to boost production of plutonium-uranium mixed oxide (MOX) fuel, according to a report by the Independent newspaper published Tuesday.

The paper said the revelations strike at the heart of the company's defense over the recent scandal concerning falsified data on MOX fuel produced for Japan. BNFL insisted the data had not compromised safety and was merely the result of poor quality controls.

Sources within BNFL told the Independent that the company certified substandard MOX pellets as safe when they would have failed a standard security check that measures the precise diameters of the cylindrical pellets with a laser micrometer.

The Independent said the practice began shortly after the MOX operation started at the company's plant in Sellafield, northwest England, in 1994. It is unclear whether the practice was still going on when BNFL began producing MOX fuel for Kansai Electric Power Co. (KEPCO) at the end of 1997.

In September 1999, BNFL found that data relating to secondary manual checks on pellet diameters on fuel bound for KEPCO's Takahama No. 3 reactor in Fukui Prefecture had been falsified. In December, it was found that data had also been falsified on MOX fuel already in Japan for the Takahama No. 4 reactor.

BNFL was supposed to measure the diameter of each cylindrical pellet at three different points -- the top, the center and the bottom -- to ensure consistency along the entire length of the pellet.

According to the Independent, however, sources said that soon after the MOX operation started, "flowerpot shaped" pellets were emerging from the grinding process.

Numerous pellets had one end wider than the specified size, so the automatic laser micrometer rejected many of them, according to the report.

Sources told the Independent that the company moved the top and bottom readings from the ends of the pellets to within 2 millimeters of the center reading so that deformed pellets would pass.

The importance of pellet size is a serious issue, said the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate (NII), the British industry watchdog, in a Feb. 18 report on an investigation into the falsification.

According to the Independent, BNFL told the NII that the pellet diameters were "highly consistent" and there was no need to take readings at either end of pellets. The NII said that it accepted BNFL's reassurances, but admitted that it was not told about the pellet deformation problems.

The NII's report, which concentrated on manually collected diameters taken in a random sample, said that the false data did not compromise safety.

"There is a robust case for saying the 100% primary diameter check alone will provide adequate confidence that all the pellets are within specification," the report said. BNFL declined to comment on the Independent story.

In Osaka, KEPCO officials said they were aware of the report but could not comment as they have not been able to confirm the accuracy of the information in it.

Publication date: Mar 07, 2000 ) 2000, NewsReal, Inc.

-- Carl Jenkins (, March 07, 2000

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