The Economist

A nuclear fission

January 22, 2000


The Japanese foreign minister, Yohei Kono, was in London last week, publicly being his usual cordial self, but privately being distinctly uncordial about a problem the British have created for Japan. It concerns the spent nuclear fuel that the Japanese ship to Britain, where it is reprocessed and shipped back to be used again in Japan's power stations. Questions are being asked about the quality of the latest shipments to Japan.

It may be that the fuel, processed by a company called BNFL, is safe to use. But in Japan any nuclear worry soon turns into a political storm. After a string of nuclear accidents, Japan experienced the world's worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl in September 1999. An uncontrolled chain-reaction was accidentally triggered by workers in a nuclear-fuel factory at Tokaimura. This led to the death of one worker and exposed 48 others to high levels of radiation. The government rushed out new safety laws and overhauled its nuclear agency from top to bottom. It was insistent that nothing should be allowed to impede its treasured nuclear-power programme, which produces about a third of the country's electricity.

It was in this political atmosphere that a British ship, the Pacific Pintail, docked this month in Fukui with its cargo of reprocessed fuel. Anti-nuclear protesters greeted the ship. They had, apparently, been told of reports in British newspapers that the quality of the fuel for a later shipment had not been properly checked. BNFL admitted that the inspection of that fuel had not been done correctly, but claimed that the fuel carried by the Pacific Pintail for one of Kansai Electric's reactors at Takahama had been properly checked. Later, though, BNFL admitted it had not been. Worse, it had agreed with Kansai Electric not to tell the regulatory authority at Japan's Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI) of the shortcoming. Kansai Electric had been eager to start loading the Takahama reactor with the new fuel. It loses money all the time a reactor is out of action.

The main concern for the Japanese is that the suspect fuel is a mixture of uranium oxide and plutonium known as MOX. The plutonium is an unwanted by-product of Japan's nuclear industry. As a constituent of MOX, it can safely be burnt in a reactor. But, as everyone knows, plutonium can also be used to make bombs. The Pacific Pintail also has an armed escort to deter hijackers. Her two-month voyage from Europe required permission from the United States (which provided the original uranium) and approval from countries along the route. Sending the fuel back, as Kansai Electric threatens, could be a diplomatic nightmare, as well as a legal and financial disaster for all concerned.

Infuriated at being misled, MITI has suspended all MOX imports from Britain and postponed Japan's plutonium-burning programme. What has particularly incensed the Japanese is that the British regulator, the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate, was aware back in early October that the quality of the data on the MOX already delivered to Kansai Electric were suspect, but it had failed to warn its opposite numbers in Japan. Incredibly, the inspectorate took the view that, as Britons were not likely to be endangered by the suspect checks, it was under no obligation to release its findings.

The British government is now desperate to repair the damage. Anna Walker, director-general of energy at the Department of Trade and Industry in London, will visit Japan in February, along with BNFL's chief executive, John Taylor, and the company's director of MOX production, Chris Loughlin. At stake is a big chunk of Britain's exports: BNFL is the country's largest single exporter of services, selling more than #300m ($490m) of its reprocessing services abroad each year. Japan, already BNFL's biggest customer, was expected to account for half the market for the company's new #300m MOX plant at Sellafield in Cumbria.

But Britain may be too late to protect its reprocessing industry. The Japanese have started making discreet inquiries among the French and the Belgians about how much spare MOX capacity they have. More importantly, insiders reckon that the BNFL fiasco has given Japan's fledgling reprocessing industry a shot in the arm. The building of a reprocessing plant at Rokkashomura, in Aomori prefecture, has been disappointingly slow. Plans to finish the plant by 2005 have looked optimistic. The Japanese government now seems likely to vote the money to ensure that the Rokkashomura project is speeded up.

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