Monju R&D budget to be slashed by ministry

Kyodo

The science ministry plans to effectively freeze research related to the trouble-prone Monju fast-breeder reactor in Fukui Prefecture by cutting funding 70 to 80 percent next year, government sources said Monday.

But the sources also said the ministry plans to ask for ¥20 billion — roughly the same as this year — to maintain the experimental reactor.

The reduction in the ¥10 billion research budget will impact work on developing an experimental fast-breeder reactor — the next phase of the Monju project.

Following the Fukushima crisis, both Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda and his predecessor, Naoto Kan, have talked about pursuing a nonnuclear future.

The Monju reactor and related research have been regarded as key to completing the country’s nuclear fuel cycle, in which spent nuclear fuel from power plants would be reprocessed for reuse as plutonium-uranium mixed oxide, or MOX, fuel.

That blueprint has been thrown into chaos since the crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 power plant forced the government to review its energy policy.

“We aren’t at the stage where we can talk about an experimental reactor when Monju is put into this situation,” said a senior official of the science ministry.

But the official said cutting the budget for Monju itself is difficult because of its safety and maintenance needs.

The reactor project, on which the government has so far spent about ¥900 billion, has been hobbled by a series of problems. The reactor first achieved criticality in 1994 but was shut down because of a sodium coolant leak and resulting fire in 1995.

It resumed operations in May 2010 after being idled for 14 years and five months. But three months later, a device fell into its containment vessel and wasn’t retrieved until June.

The cylindrical device, used to load fuel, fell into reactor while it was being lifted out after completing a fuel exchange.

A series of attempts to grab the device failed after it had become deformed and was caught against the vessel’s upper lid.

The retrieval work was a delicate and potentially dangerous operation at the plant because part of the device was soaked in a sodium coolant that can catch fire when it comes in contact with air.