Sellafield customers in trouble

Publish date: September 20, 2002

Written by: Erik Martiniussen

The Sellafield customer British Energy suffers severe economical problems. Whereas the company’s share price plummets, forces within the Labour government works to cancel the company’s contract with the Sellafield plant. Simultaneously, cases of serious security defects at Sellafield’s Japanese customer have been revealed.

In a desperate attempt to save the depressed British Energy (BE) the British Government considers to inject £ 410 million of new capital into the firm. BE is Great Britain’s largest producer of electricity and operates eight nuclear plants in England and Scotland.

Fell like a rock

Over the last few weeks the depressed company’s stock market value has fell like a rock to the ground. From being valued at more than £ 1.5bn the company is presently down at £ 40 million.

BE is Sellafield’s by far biggest customer, and spent nuclear fuel from all of BE’s nuclear plants are being reprocessed at THORP. Central politicians from Tony Blair’s own party, the Labour Party, are now arguing in favour of cancelling the Government’s contract between Sellafield and BE. Their argument is that BE would save as much as £ 200 million by storing the spent nuclear fuel, like they do in Sweden, rather than reprocess it in Sellafield’s THORP plant. Nuclear fuel from BE make up one third of the contracts at THORP.

BE holds economical commitments to the bankrupt American energy giant, ENRON, worth more than £ 349 million. The commitments have been set aside for the last couple of years, contributing to a considerable weakened trust in the company from the market.

At the same time as the owner of the Sellafield plant, BNFL, tries to convince the British Government that nuclear power currently is “more economical than ever”, the BE’s economical problems reach its climax. BNFL intends to build several new nuclear plants in Great Britain but has not yet received support for these projects. The last nuclear plant that was built in Great Britain was completed in 1995, and cost £ 1bn to build.

Japanese power plants burst

Also other aspects threaten the future prospects of the Sellafield plant. A scandal within the Japanese nuclear industry may mean the end of Sellafield contracts worth almost £ 350 million. Just recently it was discovered cracks in two Japanese reactors which originally was intended used for MOX fuel produced at Sellafield. The biggest nuclear company in Japan, Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco), admits that the company for several years has been aware of fissuration at 13 of the company’s reactors, but in order to conceal this sensitive information the company has systematically falsified its security reports. One of the former top leaders of the company describes the scandal as inexcusable.

According to Japanese authorities the falsification of the security reports went on for several years, from the late 1980s to the early 1990s. Two of the reactors were originally intended to test the MOX fuel from the British reprocessing plant at Sellafield. The prestigious MOX programme is currently postponed.

Furthermore, the security scandal has created dispute between local and central authorities in Japan. The local authorities is increasingly worried about the security at the reactors and wish to prevent the use of MOX in the reactors. This view contradicts with central Japanese authorities having made great plans for the comprehensive MOX programme. In a referendum held in 2001 the inhabitants living close to the biggest reactor in Japan voted no to the use of MOX in this reactor.

Uncertain future for Sellafield MOX

A BNFL spokesperson told the Independent that the security scandal in Japan might harm future MOX contracts between Sellafield and nuclear companies in Japan.

“We understand that Tepco will be fully investigating this matter and it would not be appropriate for BNFL to comment on the situation. We recognise that this could delay the start of the Japanese pluthermal programme but it is too early to assess any overall effect”, BNFL’s spokesperson commented.

Investigations recently performed by Tepco show substantial corrosion damages on the inside of the reactor. At one of the nuclear plants some of the components within the reactor nucleus was corroded down to half its original size. Furthermore MOX is known to speed up the corrosion process in steel.

The local Governor of the plant, Ikuo Hirayama, has explained that it is impossible at this stage to initiate the planned MOX programme. – It’s is unimaginable.

The postponement of the MOX programme in Japan is a severe setback for BNFL. The cost of building the British MOX plant, which was opened in December 2001, amounted to more than £ 480 million.