Japan’s energy policy is facing major obstacles this year, as problems surrounding an experimental reactor threaten to foil long-laid plans to recycle nuclear fuel.
The government is trying to develop a commercial fast-breeder nuclear reactor to recycle nuclear fuel and raise the energy self-sufficiency rate, currently at about 6 percent, of the world’s fifth-largest energy consuming country.
Resource-poor Japan imports all of its uranium for nuclear power generation — one of its core power sources — from Canada and other countries, but it seeks to make fuel on its own using an advanced fast-breeder reactor capable of producing more plutonium than it consumes.
Plutonium can be used as nuclear fuel for conventional and fast-breeder reactors by mixing it with uranium. Japan currently uses overseas companies to reprocess its spent fuel into uranium-plutonium mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel, with a view to homegrown reprocessing in the future.
The fast-breeder reactor development project recently hit a major stumbling block, however, that put the entire project at risk of shutting down.
The regulator instructed the government in November to consider steps to guarantee the safety of the trouble-prone Monju reactor, including an option to close it down if a new operator cannot be found within six months.
The government has spent more than ¥1 trillion ($8.27 billion) on Monju, a prototype fast-breeder nuclear reactor that remains under development.
But ongoing safety problems have left the reactor idled for much of the time since it first achieved criticality in 1994.
The Nuclear Regulation Authority has criticized the current operator, the government-backed Japan Atomic Energy Agency, for having made little progress in enhancing safety management even after a slew of safety problems led to a protracted halt in operations.
Hiroshi Hase, the science minister in charge of the project, set up a panel to discuss a possible successor to operate the reactor.
But the regulator’s warning sparked concerns over the fate of the project, as many industry observers think it would be tough to find a replacement.
Establishing yet another government body is no longer a solution after the government’s repeated attempts to create new entities to run Monju failed to realize safe operation, an NRA official said.
The JAEA, established in 2005 by the government through a merger of two former national nuclear research institutions, is already the Monju plant’s third operator.
It would be too risky to let a private company take charge of the prototype reactor, which generates electricity in a more complex way than light-water reactors that many utilities run at present, experts said.
“A (private) power company doesn’t have the technical expertise” to run a fast-breeder nuclear reactor, Makoto Yagi, chairman of the Federation of Electric Power Companies of Japan (FEPC), told reporters when asked about replacements for the JAEA.
The Japan Institute for National Fundamentals, a pro-nuclear activist group, criticized the NRA’s decision as a move that could lead to the closure of Monju and a drastic overhaul of the country’s nuclear energy policy.
The government should “correct the Nuclear Regulation Authority’s excessive” behavior, the institute said in a newspaper advertisement in December, arguing that the NRA has no jurisdiction over the nation’s energy policy.
Shunichi Tanaka, the head of the NRA, has repeatedly said his body wants the science minister, who is in charge of the Monju project, to ensure the experimental reactor’s safety and has no intention to push the ministry to discontinue it.
“It is up to the ministry to decide” whether to close it, Tanaka said at a news conference.
Hideyuki Ban, co-director of the Citizens’ Nuclear Information Center, an independent anti-nuclear advocacy group, said no power companies and government bodies have the ability to carry out the project safely.
“I think (closing it) is really what the government should do,” he said.
Monju has a long track record of problems, starting with a major fire caused by a sodium leak in 1995 that resulted in the project being suspended until May 2010.
It was halted again in August of the same year after a fuel replacement device for the reactor was accidentally dropped, leaving it inoperable until now.
Shutting down the reactor due to safety issues would be tantamount to Japan giving up on development of a commercial fast-breeder reactor, Ban said.
However, terminating the project could create a new headache: the stockpiling of plutonium with no fast-breeder reactor running on MOX fuel to use it. Such a decision would reinforce international fears that the nuclear fuel could be put to military use.
Chinese envoy Fu Cong said in a speech to the U.N. General Assembly’s First Committee in October that Japan’s fissile materials inventory is already large enough to make more than 1,000 nuclear warheads.
The FEPC had planned to use such MOX fuel at 15 conventional reactors by the end of March 2016. That plan, however, has been stalled since the Fukushima meltdowns of 2011 left most reactors in Japan suspended for safety reviews under newly tightened regulations.
If abandoning the fast-breeder reactor project derails Japan’s plan to launch its own reprocessing of spent fuel, concerns are likely to grow over what to do with spent fuel.
“If the Monju project falls through, there is no doubt that calls for reviewing the energy policy will grow louder,” Ban said.