BRITISH NUCLEAR Fuels has admitted that it has discovered twice as many faked safety checks on its highly dangerous mixed-oxide fuel as previously thought.
The nuclear fuel was destined to be part of a second export consignment to Japan, where environmentalists are planning huge protests against the scheduled arrival of the first consignment later today.
The company originally estimated that quality-control data relating to 11 lots of mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel had been falsified, but an internal investigation has identified 22 lots that were forged. British Nuclear Fuels (BNFL) launched its inquiry last week after The Independent revealed serious lapses in its quality-control procedures relating to MOX fuel for Japan. Three employees have been suspended.
An outcry in Japan followed the revelations and large protests are expected on Monday when the MOX consignment is unloaded at the Kansai Electric Power Company's nuclear reactor in Takahama.
Japan's Ministry of International Trade and Industry and the country's safety authorities have demanded assurances over the quality of the MOX before they will consider allowing it to be used.
A Sellafield source told The Independent that employees within BNFL's quality-control process had bypassed elaborate checks on the dimensions of fuel pellets by using data sheets from previous samples - leading to some lots being passed safe when they were not checked manually.
BNFL emphasised yesterday that its own investigation has cleared the shipment due to arrive in Japan today of any irregularities. "It includes no fuel with falsified data and we can categorically confirm that it fully meets the specification and will perform safely and as required in the reactor," the company said.
The Kansai Electric Company has launched its own inquiry into quality control at Sellafield and last week flew a team of investigators to Cumbria to examine the MOX fuel-production facility.
Kansai said yesterday that it was continuing to investigate BNFL's data on the dimensions of the fuel pellets and has found that 22 lots out of a second consignment of 193 lots destined for the reactor at Takahama were falsified. BNFL said none of this fuel had left the Sellafield plant.
But Greenpeace International has been capitalising on the doubts over BNFL's MOX. Mike Townsley, its international plutonium campaigner, said the news of more data "fabrications" at Sellafield had infuriated environmentalists in Japan.
"We are not surprised that once Kansai began to look into data sheets at BNFL they found more falsified documents similar to the ones described by The Independent," he said. "But what is horrifying is that they are still planning to use BNFL's MOX at Takahama."
Kansai's preliminary investigation found that the 392 lots of pellets in the 16 MOX fuel assemblies now being shipped to Japan had been checked automatically and that the data "completely conforms" to the desired specifications.
Exporting MOX fuel - a mixture of uranium and recycled plutonium - is highly controversial. Environmentalists claim shipments could be intercepted by terrorists and used to make nuclear weapons.
MOX fuel is one of the most dangerous substances exported by Britain. It has top-level security classification and needs armoured vehicles, armed guards and constant satellite surveillance.
The Nuclear Installations Inspectorate has launched its own inquiry into the data fabrication but said that it would not publish its report for another month. The NII heard about the problems at Sellafield after it was contacted by The Independent.