The Guardian Society

Environment Supplement

26th January 2000

Load of trouble

An armed force guarded a cargo of the world's most frightening substance on its voyage from Cumbria to Japan - and into a nuclear storm

Paul Brown reports Wednesday January 26, 2000

Europe's most heavily armed police are dressed from head to foot in black, the visors of their riot helmets down, ready for any form of attack. They carry rifles and have grenades and gas masks dangling below their body armour. In self-defence, they can use the 30mm rapid fire naval cannon or, at close quarters, shotguns. This the elite cadre of the UK Atomic Energy Authority security force, Britain's least known police unit. They were trained and armed for a very particular task: to sail round the world in their double-hulled gunboats to deliver nuclear fuel to Japan. Now they are back on the Cumbrian coast near their base at Sellafield, kicking their heels and awaiting a highly embarrassing order: to return to Japan and collect the fuel they have just delivered - a round trip of 40,000 miles.

The UKAEA security force is a pawn in a debacle that has brought Britain's nuclear industry to a new low. Last Wednesday, Kansai Electric Power Co Inc - the first company in the world to accept a shipment of reprocessed mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel from British Nuclear Fuels (BNFL) - announced it was to bar BNFL from supplying it. In a statement, Kansai said that BNFL's falsification of data relating to safety of records had seriously damaged public trust. Japan has now demanded that the shipment be taken back.

So the government has ordered a high-level delegation - including Anna Walker, director general of energy at the DTI, and Lawrence Williams, chief inspector of the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate - to fly to Japan to try to talk the Japanese government round. The delegation's task is a difficult one and, even if it succeeds, there are serious questions to be answered about how BNFL came to spend hundreds of millions of pounds of public money on a disastrous plan to reprocess the world's plutonium, without consulting the public about what it was doing. Mixed-oxide fuel was to be the salvation of the spent nuclear fuel industry based at Sellafield. MOX is a mixture of uranium and plutonium. It is not the sort of thing you can put in the post, return to sender: it is easily dissolved in acid and convertible into nuclear weapons, hence the extraordinary security measures demanded to escort it round the world. Nine thousand jobs depend on chopping up hot, used fuel, dissolving it in nitric acid and turning it into plutonium and uranium. In the midst of the huge Sellafield complex is one of the most hi-tech industrial plants the world has seen. It cost 300m and is the last word in robotics, with every speck of dust accounted for to make sure no plutonium goes astray. But it has been lying idle for two years while the government decides whether it should be dismantled before it is ever used. By law, BNFL has to justify the extra nuclear contamination that opening the plant would cause by showing it is economically justifiable. Before the latest debacle, many thought this was unlikely and were willing to challenge any permission in the courts. Now it looks plain impossible. The plant was built by BNFL with taxpayers' money, but without publicising what they were doing. The idea was to reprocess plutonium and uranium by making MOX fuel to be sold overseas. This would justify the continued existence of giant reprocessing plants for producing plutonium that no one otherwise needs or wants. The reprocessing system was developed in the dim days at the beginning of the cold war, when Britain urgently needed plutonium to make hydrogen bombs and keep its place as a world power. All that was 50 years and another century ago now, and the few pounds of plutonium that were needed to make the first nuclear weapons has become an embarrassing mountain of 40 tonnes - enough to obliterate all human life in the world around 100,000 times.

Every day we go on making more and more plutonium. Although the UK does not need it, it is not the sort of thing that can be let out of sight. For a start, it is the world's most toxic substance - a speck of dust in the lungs can cause cancer. It is also the substance every terrorist and dictator in the world would like to get his hands on. It is the most desired and most undesirable commodity on the planet.

So BNFL had a problem. What was it going to do with a growing stockpile of plutonium it could not use? It fell back on a technology developed years before but abandoned as too expensive and potentially dangerous. It would mix plutonium with uranium and make a new fuel called MOX, which could be burnt in traditional reactors. BNFL went ahead and built the Sellafield MOX factory, on the basis that it was sure it would be able to sell the fuel to Germany and Japan. The reason for BNFL's optimism lay in the aftermath of the second world war. The two defeated countries were never to be allowed to become nuclear weapons states. Rather inconveniently, though, they own large quantities of plutonium. This is stored at Sellafield, where both these countries have sent their spent fuel for reprocessing. Under contracts signed 30 years ago between these two countries and the UK, they have to have their plutonium back, but they cannot have it in a raw metal form from which they could make nuclear bombs. They have to have it as fuel for peaceful purposes.

In the 1970s, the idea was to use the plutonium in a new generation of nuclear reactors called fast breeders, which used large quantities of it and neatly got rid of the stockpile, but this was a technology that could not be made to work. It meant Germany and Japan were left with large quantities of plutonium they had no use for, had to have returned, but were not allowed to receive because of the legacy of the last world war.

In a desperate search for a solution, both sides fixed on MOX as the way out of the dilemma. Even though it was far more expensive than conventional uranium fuel, it was a way of using the plutonium that no one really wanted.

So, without anyone really noticing, MOX fuel became the solution to the plutonium mountain. A so-called demonstration plant was built at Sellafield to prove it would work and the Swiss, who also have a surplus plutonium problem, but are famously neutral so do not need a bomb, were the pioneers in trying it out in their reactors.

The fuss began when the first shipment of demonstration MOX was to go to Japan. The US refused point blank to allow the risk of MOX being flown to Japan. The US has a veto because the uranium from which the Japanese plutonium originates comes under American proliferation safeguards.

In order to avoid the world's most frightening substance falling into the wrong hands, the US demanded that two armed ships were required to carry it round the world. This meant hiring a warship from the British navy, or a gunboat from the Japanese, making MOX even more expensive.

But BNFL hit on another idea. The company would take its two specially built nuclear transports and convert them into gunboats. Three of the latest 30mm naval guns would be bolted on to each ship and two groups of police would be specially trained to use them and a multitude of other weapons needed to repel any kind of attack. All levels of defence were considered and included - even water cannon, needed to repel softer targets such as Greenpeace.

After months of preparation and increasing anger from Caribbean and other nations that might be endangered by the passing convoy, the two gunboats set sail from Sellafield. To avoid diplomatic protests and a possible blockade of the Panama canal, the ships went via the Cape of Good Hope, through the Pacific to Japan.

Landfall was not possible in all that time because none of the nations en route would welcome the ships. One of the policemen on board, who took a tumble in rough seas, had to be airlifted to hospital in Australia at the furthest distance the helicopter could fly to avoid the ships coming to port.

There was a sigh of relief from BNFL when the fuel arrived unscathed and, despite protests, the Kansai Nuclear Company decided to load the fuel into its Takahama reactors. A few days later, the scandal of the falsified safety checks broke in Britain. BNFL began an urgent damage limitation exercise, reassuring the Japanese that the fuel sent to them was unaffected by the false documentation, that the fuel concerned was still at Sellafield.

In the wake of Japan's worst ever nuclear accident at the Tokaimura plant, when, in a totally unrelated incident, three workers were badly hurt and thousands evacuated, feelings were running high. When documents from the British nuclear installations inspectorate were uncovered confirming that some of the Japanese consignment was suspect, the dam burst. Kansai rejected the BNFL fuel and said the MOX would never be loaded into its reactors.

Perhaps worst of all for BNFL, the Japanese government said it had lost faith in the company. This leaves a terrible mess. The mothballed plant can't open until it gets firm orders, BNFL is horrified at the PR disaster of having to bring the fuel back, and the whole future of Sellafield is in disarray. If MOX is the only remaining justification for reprocessing spent fuel, what happens now?