Japanese Reactor Risks Catastrophe, Warns Report

AMSTERDAM, The Netherlands, December 29, 2000 (ENS) - Plutonium mixed oxide (MOX) fuel produced in Europe and intended for a Japanese reactor will increase the risks of a catastrophic nuclear accident if used, says a report released in The Netherlands this week.

Dr Frank Barnaby of the UK based Oxford Research Group, an independent team of researchers studying nuclear decision making, produced the report with Greenpeace International. The report claims that the MOX fuel produced for Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) is tainted.

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Greenpeace protesters outside Belgonucleaire's plant in Dessel last year. (Photo courtesy Greenpeace/Cutrupi)
"This MOX fuel has been manufactured in an old facility in Belgium with poor production and quality control standards, even below those of the discredited plutonium company British Nuclear Fuels," said the report.

"This superficiality could increase the chances of a nuclear accident once the fuel is loaded into a reactor."

The report bases its conclusions on claims that MOX fuel standards are low at the Belgonucleaire facility in Belgium and that vital quality control checks are poorly applied or disregarded. The report said there is a lack of international standards for such nuclear fuel.

"Worse still, if TEPCO proceed with their plans to load this fuel, they will significantly increase the risks of a nuclear accident, with catastrophic effects involving the release of large amounts of deadly breathable plutonium particles into the atmosphere," said Barnaby.

"There would inevitably be higher lung cancer and other fatalities as a consequence."

MOX fuel is a mixture of about three percent plutonium oxide with about 97 percent uranium oxide, which can be used in nuclear reactors to produce electricity. Such fuel is routinely used for power generation in Belgium, France, Germany and Switzerland.

Japan has a long term program to develop its nuclear energy industry and to produce secure supplies of electricity. The strategy includes a complete closed fuel cycle ensuring the proper management of the spent fuel and nuclear waste, by reprocessing the spent fuel, conditioning and disposing of the waste, and recycling the valuable fissile materials - uranium and plutonium.

TEPCO intends to load the MOX fuel into the Fukushima-1 unit 3 reactor in April 2001. A further shipment of plutonium fuel, also produced by Belgonucleaire, left Europe for Japan earlier this week.

Belgonucleaire markets plutonium MOX internationally with French company Cogema under the consortium COMMOX.

Earlier this year, UK government owned British Nuclear Fuels Ltd (BNFL) admitted safety data for a similar MOX shipment to Japan in 1999 was falsified. The company is negotiating the return of the shipment to the UK and has paid the Japanese government $US60 million in compensation.

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Japanese military boats escort the British Nuclear Fuels ship carrying the MOX fuel into Fukushima harbor last year. (Photo by Jorge Punzi, courtesy Greenpeace)
Barnaby cites statistical analysis of the Belgian MOX fuel by Dr Edwin Lyman, scientific director for Nuclear Control Institute, as showing indications of possible data manipulation.

The Washington, DC based Nuclear Control Institute is an independent research and advocacy center specializing in problems of nuclear proliferation.

"This is an issue of fundamental nuclear safety," said Shaun Burnie, Greenpeace International nuclear campaigner and co-author of the report.

"Tokyo Electric and the Japanese government have so far complacently accepted the assurances of the European plutonium industry that they can be relied upon to tell the truth. Their investigations so far have been pathetic.

"It’s as if they are looking into the quality and safety of ‘hello kitty’ dolls, rather than hundreds of kilograms of plutonium which could lead to a nuclear disaster.

"The Japanese authorities appear to have learnt nothing from recent nuclear accidents in Japan, and it will be the people of Fukushima and the rest of Japan who will pay the terrible consequences. Whether it is BNFL, Belgonucleaire or Cogema, they have demonstrated over the years that they cannot be trusted."

In August, nearly 1,000 Japanese citizens and non-governmental offices, including Greenpeace Japan and Citizens Nuclear Information Center, launched a court action seeking an injunction against TEPCO to prevent the loading of the plutonium MOX fuel produced by Belgonucleaire.

Three judges in the Fukushima District court, north of Tokyo, will hear evidence of the MOX production standards at Belgonucleaire, in Dessel, Belgium, where 32 assemblies of plutonium fuel were manufactured and subsequently shipped to Japan in 1999.

Before making a decision on the plaintiffs' case, the Fukushima Court has agreed to hold one further hearing in late January when additional evidence will be submitted.