Japan to scrap troubled ¥1 trillion Monju fast-breeder reactor

by

Staff Writer

The government decided to cut its losses Wednesday on the ¥1 trillion Monju fast-breeder reactor, pulling the plug on the project after years of mishaps, cover-ups and waste.

At an extraordinary meeting, the Cabinet decided to decommission the idle facility in Fukui Prefecture but reaffirmed a national commitment to obtaining a nuclear fuel cycle.

At the end of the Cabinet meeting, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said the government will set up an expert panel on fast-breeder reactor issues that will “carry out an overall revision of the Monju project, including its decommissioning” by the end of this year.

Fast-breeder reactors like Monju are designed to produce more plutonium than they consume. The government has long envisioned them as playing a role in the nation’s nuclear profile.

During the same meeting, the government also pledged to draw up a road map of developing “demonstration fast reactors” by the end of the year.

A demonstration reactor is more advanced than a prototype reactor like Monju. Specifically, Japan is considering participating in France’s project to develop a fast-breeder reactor of the demonstration type, documents submitted to the meeting by industry minister Hiroshige Seko showed.

But given the record of Monju’s serious accidents and mismanagement scandals, Seko’s pledge to go to the next development stage — with little public explanation on the failure of the Monju project itself — is likely to draw strong criticism from the public.

Monju dates back to 1980, when work began amid the realization of a need to reduce reliance on fossil fuel. Almost all oil, coal and gas burned in Japan is imported.

Monju not only absorbed fistfuls of taxpayer money, but also suffered repeated accidents and mismanagement while only going live for a few months during its three-decade existence.

The Monju reactor reached criticality for the first time in 1994 but was forced to shut down in December 1995 after a leak of sodium coolant and fire. There was a subsequent attempt at a cover-up.

In November 2012, it emerged that the operator, Japan Atomic Energy Agency, had failed to check as many as 10,000 of Monju’s components, as safety rules require.

In November last year, the Nuclear Regulation Authority declared that the government-affiliated JAEA was “not qualified as an entity to safely operate” Monju.

It told the government either to find an alternative operator or scrap the project. The government was unable to find new management.

On Wednesday after the Cabinet meeting, education minister Hirokazu Matsuno said investments of another ¥500 billion would be needed if the Monju reactor were to be maintained.

“And it is also true we have yet to find an (alternative) entity to run Monju,” he noted.

Later the same day during a briefing for reporters, government bureaucrats emphasized that the government has yet to draw any conclusion on the fate of the Monju reactor.

But the comments of Suga and Matsuno were widely interpreted as signaling that the Cabinet is willing to eventually mothball the Monju reactor.

Meanwhile, decommissioning Monju will raise international concerns over Japan’s massive plutonium stockpile, extracted from spent fuel at the nation’s dozens of conventional nuclear power plants.

The stockpile is estimated at 48 tons of plutonium, enough to produce thousands of atomic bombs.

With no way to consume plutonium directly, the government plans to continue using MOX fuels — a mix of plutonium and uranium — in conventional nuclear reactors.

But most commercial reactors remain idle in the wake of the 2011 Fukushima nuclear crisis, and for now the rate of consumption will be slow. The No. 3 reactor of the Ikata nuclear power plant in Ehime Prefecture is currently the sole active unit that uses MOX fuel.

The Cabinet of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe hopes to reactivate more reactors once the NRA completes its safety checks.

Meanwhile, the matter remains a divisive one between government ministries.

The education and science ministry, which oversees the Monju project, reportedly opposes scrapping the reactor, arguing its importance in setting up a nuclear fuel cycle and tackling the plutonium oversupply.

But the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, which oversees national nuclear policy, reportedly backs Monju’s scrapping as officials fear its tainted reputation could fuel opposition to nuclear power.

At the same time, METI wants to keep the fuel cycle policy afloat. It has reportedly argued for Japan’s participation in France’s ASTRID project to develop a demonstration fast-breeder reactor. ASTRID, or Advanced Sodium Technological Reactor for Industrial Demonstration, will use more advanced technologies than those on which Monju was based. But the project is still in the designing phase, which will continue at least until the end of 2019.

The sodium coolant used in fast-breeder reactors is highly flammable and thus very difficult to handle. So far, no country has developed a fast-breeder reactor for commercial purposes.