The Japan Times

Wednesday, March 08, 2000

Kepco to stick with MOX, scandal or no

By ERIC JOHNSTON Staff writer

OSAKA -- After five months of denial and public assurances that nothing was wrong, Kansai Electric Power Co. has admitted it failed to properly investigate charges of data falsification at a British manufacturer of uranium- plutonium mixed oxide fuel intended for use in Fukui Prefecture nuclear reactors.

But the utility plans to forge ahead with the importation of MOX fuel from other sources, insisting MOX is a necessary part of Japan's energy policy.

In an interim report released March 1, Kepco acknowledged that it failed to carry out a rigorous, independent check after British Nuclear Fuels Ltd. admitted falsifying data related to two shipments of MOX fuel, and that too much trust had been placed in BNFL.

One shipment originally intended for Kepco's Takahama No. 4 reactor arrived in Fukui Prefecture in October, while a second shipment for Takahama No. 3 was being processed in England.

Kepco's admission that it failed to act properly was a remarkable about-face.

The utility had consistently denied there were any problems. From October to mid-December, Kepco officials repeatedly told environmental groups, Ministry of International Trade and Industry officials and the Fukui Prefectural Assembly that the fuel was safe and had been properly checked.

Based on a statistical analysis that revealed extreme anomalies in the fuel data, environmental groups had suspected something was wrong with the fuel as early as last September. But Kepco ignored their warnings.

The report also makes clear that, in addition to Kepco, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd. failed to follow through on several occasions to ensure that BNFL was taking adequate safety measures. In particular, the report charges Mitsubishi with failing to properly analyze the fuel's production process and evaluate BNFL's quality control methods.

In addition, entrusting the investigation to both BNFL officials and Mitsubishi was an insufficient response to the problem, the report says. It recommends that Kepco officials be placed at overseas MOX production centers in the future.

Kepco said, however, that when it sent a delegation to the U.K. in December, a request to speak directly with the BNFL workers involved in the falsification was denied out of concern for the workers' rights. As a result, Kepco officials were forced to rely on BNFL for information, a situation the report admits was inappropriate.

The report avoids addressing what has become a major point of contention between Japan and Britain: who will pay for the MOX to be returned to Europe?

Kepco has said it is BNFL's responsibility, but the British government has raised objections, saying the matter must be decided by the governments, not the companies, involved.

As to Kepco's next move, company officials have said that while they are concerned about the loss of trust in Japan's MOX program, there are no plans to give up.

Kepco has said it will take several steps to restore public trust, including more consultation with outside experts and the establishment of another safety committee.

Kepco has no plans, however, to discuss the more basic question of how necessary MOX is to Japan's energy needs.

Opponents of the program note that the original idea behind its creation was that MOX would be a cheaper alternative to pure uranium fuel because it could be recycled and reused often.

Three decades ago, there were concerns about scarce supplies of uranium, and many experts predicted the price of the radioactive ore would drastically increase. This led several countries, including Japan, to explore the possibility of plutonium- and MOX-fueled reactors.

However, the price of uranium remained relatively stable when the expected shortages failed to materialize. Opposition to plutonium and MOX in many European countries and the United States limited the potential of such programs, but they moved forward in Japan.

Although Kepco said it plans to import more MOX, the source of these future shipments is not clear at the moment.

MITI has indicated it will not allow MOX imports from BNFL anytime soon. And with recent discoveries that BNFL also falsified data related to nuclear fuel shipments bound for Sweden and Germany, there are growing calls in Britain to get out of the MOX export business.

Kepco officials say that, despite the recent problems with BNFL, the MOX program remains necessary because Japan stands to benefit from MOX in the long-run as it will be a more reliable energy source than uranium.