British Nuclear Fuels admitted this week that its staff had falsified quality-control checks on plutonium-containing fuel at its Sellafield fabrication plant.
A spokesman said workers who were supposed to check the measurements manually on a sample of 200 mixed-oxide (Mox) fuel pellets had filled out the inspection reports using figures from previous samples.
The company stressed the manual operation was a secondary check, and that each consignment of 3,000 pellets is first subject to automated measurement by laser. Any that fail to meet the specification are rejected immediately. If outsize pellets were put into one of the 1,000-pellet rods that make up the fuel assemblies, there would be a potential safety hazard – they could expand inside the reactor and puncture the fuel rod’s protective cladding, leading to a possible leak of radioactivity.
The deception had come to light when an internal BNFL audit revealed identical figures for a number of different samples. However, the spokesman conceded that the discovery showed the company’s working procedures – on which the plant’s safety case is predicated – had failed.
The plant is making Mox fuel for an overseas customer. BNFL said no fuel assemblies had been certified or dispatched using the pellets implicated in the falsified data.
An inspector from the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate went to Sellafield on Tuesday to investigate the incident. An NII spokesman said it appeared to `have been a breach of procedures’ but added that the regulator was unlikely to take any legal action against the company.
A BNFL spokesman would not comment on how many staff at the Mox demonstration plant had been involved or what disciplinary action had been taken against them.
* The Government has appointed Credit Suisse First Boston to act as its financial adviser on the partial privatisation of BNFL, scheduled for mid-2001.
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