BNFL planned nuclear fuel deception

By Paul Brown, Environment Correspondent
The Guardian,
Tuesday May 18, 1999

British Nuclear Fuels was making plans to import thousands of spent nuclear fuel rods without notifying the British or United States governments while involved in the takeover of the Westinghouse group, a deal the British government was claiming would not entail imports of nuclear waste.

Documents leaked to the pressure group Friends of the Earth show that detailed discussions about the size and type of flasks and number of fuel rods from three US utilities were undertaken by BNFL. The contracts would have been worth up to 1bn and the fuel rods stored at Sellafield in Cumbria.

The need for confidentiality is underlined by BNFL's commercial manager, Ian Porter, who writes on May 28, 1998 about the need to alter documents to remove his company's name if the US Department of Energy was required to be consulted about the plan.

At the same time, BNFL was beginning its ultimately successful takeover of the Westinghouse group which manufactures fuel rods to be used in US reactors.

Reprocessing spent fuel has been banned in the US because of nuclear proliferation fears and companies are running out of space to store spent fuel.

The problem was to satisfy US scruples about reprocessing. The plan was to export the spent fuel to Britain for 15 years or so 'for storage' until a depository had been built at Yucca Mountain in the Nevada desert.

However, to sell the plan to the British government, when importing fuel for storage is banned, BNFL would have had to claim the imported fuel was for eventual reprocessing, thereby deceiving both governments.

BNFL's need for secrecy was underlined because of public assurances given by John Battle, the energy minister, in a letter to Tim Collins, Conservative MP for Westmoreland and Lonsdale, on July 8 last year. The letter was sent when the company was in active negotiation over Westinghouse and separately with Yankee Rowe, Connecticut Yankee, and Mine Yankee, the three linked nuclear companies wishing to export spent fuel to Britain. Mr Battle, who knew nothing about negotiations with the Yankee companies, stated in his letter: 'BNFL has made clear publicly that American wastes will be dealt with in the United States.'

According to the leaked documents, Ian Porter said in his letter to the three US companies: 'I would be most grateful if, in your discussion with DoE (the US Department of Energy) you do not refer to BNFL by name or to the specific cask names mentioned in the paper. Clearly, if you wish to leave something in writing with DoE it will be necessary to "doctor" this paper accordingly. I am sure that Marilyn will help you in this.'

Last night a BNFL spokesman said talks took place with 'a number' of American nuclear companies but dismissed the claims as 'absolute nonsense'.

The offer was never made and the negotiations were ended as soon as it became clear that the services the US firms wanted would breach British government policy.

Charles Secrett, director of Friends of the Earth, said: 'The papers show that BNFL was prepared to deceive both governments to bring spent fuel to Britain in order to shore up its bankrupt reprocessing business.' He said those responsible should resign.