Cover-up in Japanese nuclear program is devastating news for nuclear industry

Press release - 30 August, 2002
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The Japanese nuclear industry at Takahama loading BNFL plutonium mox fuel to be returned to Sellafield, UK in July 2002.

The news announced last night by Japan's largest nuclear utility that there has been a safety cover-up for decades at its nuclear power plants is a devastating blow to an already embattled nuclear industry with global implications, Greenpeace stated today.

Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) announced that there had been a failure dating back to the 1980's and through the 1990's to conduct vital safety inspections at their nuclear reactors and that results of tests had been deliberately falsified. The country's nuclear program, as well as any future business prospects for the two European plutonium companies - British Nuclear Fuels and Cogema are now in serious doubt. Japan is the world's third largest commercial nuclear power operator, with the largest construction program for new reactors and plans to use thousands of kilograms of plutonium in its reactors.

One immediate consequence of the news was the indefinite postponement of plans by Tokyo Electric to introduce controversial plutonium mixed oxide (MOX) fuel into one of its reactors during September this year. This was announced by TEPCO President Nobuya Minami at an emergency press conference held in Tokyo last night.

The announcement by TEPCO was made solely due to the efforts of a former worker from the company that did the inspections, General Electric International Inc. The 'whistleblower' informed the Japanese Ministry for Trade, Industry and Economy (METI) in July 2000. METI has claimed in a statement that it has been investigating the extent of the problem since then. However, this is confirmation that the Japanese Government withheld vital nuclear safety information for at least two years, while claiming their reactors were safe.

One of the problems that has come to light is corrosion of the reactor core shroud (1), but TEPCO did not inform the Japanese Government for at least one year. The safety cover-up and falsification goes beyond the core shroud and other vital components in TEPCO's reactors.

TEPCO was planning to load MOX into one of its reactors later in September, defying opposition from local citizens who feared it was not safe. It has emerged in the last week that the reactor into which TEPCO was planning to load MOX, has been found to have serious corrosion in a vital component of the reactor.

"Japan's nuclear industry and Government has been exposed once again as ignoring fundamental safety problems at their nuclear reactors - risking catastrophic accident and the lives of tens of millions. This is only the start of the scandal. There is a lot more to be revealed and the industry and Japanese Government safety authorities will have to be forced to release all relevant information. It is confirmation once again that the nuclear industry is inherently dishonest and cannot be trusted. The ramifications of this latest news will be felt around the world," said Kazue Suzuki of Greenpeace Japan

The immediate postponement of TEPCO's plutonium program is a further blow to the business prospects of British Nuclear Fuels and Cogema, both were desperate to secure contracts with Japan. Currently BNFL is shipping a cargo of rejected plutonium MOX fuel from Japan after they lied to their largest Japanese client over vital safety quality control data. The only reason BNFL is making the shipment, and why the UK Government agreed to a compensation package of over 100 million sterling to Japan, was on the basis of Japan signing contracts for MOX with BNFL.

With the program now effectively frozen in Japan they will find it impossible to move ahead with their MOX business. The shipment of rejected plutonium MOX from Japan to the UK has been vehemently opposed by 80 governments so far. These governments, led by the Pacific Island nations, have been reassured by the Japanese nuclear industry and British Nuclear Fuels that the shipment is safe and poses no risk. The assurances have been rejected by the en-route states which have condemned them for using their oceans for nuclear transports.

"This shocking disclosure is complete vindication of the efforts of the Japanese anti-nuclear movement to oppose the country's massive nuclear program, including its insane plans to use thousands of kilograms of plutonium. It is also absolute confirmation that the governments around the world who are

against Japan's plutonium shipments are right to oppose their dangerous transports and to reject their complacent assurances. It is almost beyond belief that the company at the centre of this scandal, Tokyo Electric, in a matter of weeks was planning to load plutonium into one of its corroded reactors. The safety implications of using MOX even without major safety violations and corrosion are huge,

with serious cracking they are beyond imagination. If it was not the nuclear industry it would be unbelievable," said Shaun Burnie of Greenpeace International.

Notes: 1. Core Shroud Cracking The core shroud is a large stainless steel cylinder of circumferentially welded plates surrounding the reactor fuel core. The shroud provides for the core geometry of the fuel bundles. It is integral to providing a refloodable compartment in the event of a loss-of-coolant-accident. Extensive cracking of circumferential welds on the core shroud has been discovered in a growing number of U.S. and foreign BWRs. A lateral shift along circumferential cracks at the welds by as little as 1/8 inch can result in the misalignment of the fuel and the inability to insert the control rods coupled with loss of fuel core cooling capability. This scenario can result in a core melt accident.

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