Nuclear regulators decided Wednesday to urge the science minister to pick a new entity to run a trouble-prone prototype fast-breeder reactor, as they see little progress in safety management operations under the current operator.
The Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) concluded at a meeting open to the public that it is inappropriate to continue having the government-backed Japan Atomic Energy Agency (JAEA) manage the Monju reactor in Fukui Prefecture.
The regulatory body will recommend that Hiroshi Hase, the minister of education, culture, sports, science and technology, appoint a new operator to bolster the reactor’s safety management. It is the first such action by the NRA since it was set up in September 2012 after the nation tightened its nuclear safety policy following the Fukushima disaster in 2011.
The nuclear watchdog will call for the minister to consider how the safety of the reactor can be guaranteed and also a possible option to close it if the minister is not able to find a replacement.
The potential closure of the reactor could lead to a drastic review of the nuclear policy the government has pursued for decades, given that the majority of the public remains against nuclear restarts following the Fukushima crisis.
The government has been looking to recycle fuel used at nuclear power plants by reprocessing it into mixed-oxide fuel, to be used again both at fast-breeder reactors — which are designed to produce more plutonium than they consume — and at many light-water reactors running in resource-scarce Japan.
The fast-breeder reactor has experienced a series of safety problems over the years following a major fire in 1995 caused by a sodium leak.
The JAEA, the current operator, failed to conduct an inspection of a massive number of devices at the reactor in 2012. That was followed by the discovery that dozens of monitoring cameras were broken during a safety inspection last year, as well as the more recent leakage of radioactive liquid waste after ignoring an alarm for more than a year.
The NRA’s decision comes after a meeting with an official in charge of the reactor at the science ministry last month, and also with JAEA President Toshio Kodama on Monday to hear ideas on what steps the organization should take to enhance its safety operations.