Monju prototype reactor, once a key cog in Japan’s nuclear energy policy, to be scrapped

Kyodo

Once envisioned as playing a key role in Japan’s nuclear fuel-recycling policy, the controversial Monju prototype fast-breeder atomic reactor will now be scrapped, the government formally announced Wednesday.

The reactor, in Tsuruga, Fukui Prefecture, has been a magnet for controversy, barely operating over the past two decades despite its planned key role.

Wednesday’s ministerial decision came in spite of a failure to obtain local support for the decommissioning plan. It was also the end of a process that included a discussion of Japan’s overall fast-reactor policy by the government panel.

The government has invested more than ¥1 trillion ($8.5 billion) in research and development for the reactor — which was designed to produce more plutonium than it consumes while generating electricity — in hopes it would serve as a linchpin of nuclear fuel-recycling efforts.

Because resource-poor Japan relies on uranium imports to power its conventional reactors, the government will still continue to develop fast reactors in pursuit of a nuclear fuel cycle that reprocesses spent fuel and reuses plutonium and uranium extracted through reprocessing.

But Monju’s fate is sure to prompt more public scrutiny of the fuel-cycle policy, with many nuclear reactors left idled after the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster. That crisis has left much of the public wary of nuclear power.

With Monju’s decommissioning, and the accompanying loss of jobs and subsidies, the central government also risks damaging its rapport with Fukui Prefecture, which hosts a number of other currently shuttered atomic power plants along the Sea of Japan coast.

The government has calculated it will cost at least ¥375 billion over 30 years to fully decommission the facility. It plans to remove the spent nuclear fuel from the reactor by 2022 and finish dismantling by 2047.

Monju achieved sustained nuclear reactions, which technically constitutes criticality, in 1994. But a series of problems, including a leak of sodium coolant the following year, has left it largely mothballed for the subsequent two decades.

Restarting operations at the plant would have cost at least ¥540 billion, according to government forecasts.

“We will decommission Monju given that it would take a considerable amount of time and expense to resume its operations,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said at Wednesday’s meeting.

“The nuclear fuel cycle is at the core of our energy policy,” Economy, Trade and Industry Minister Hiroshige Seko told reporters after the meeting. His ministry will take over from the science ministry in overseeing the development of more practical fast reactors.

“We will make full use of the highly valuable knowledge and expertise acquired at Monju as we move forward with fast reactor development … first by concentrating on creating a strategic road map,” Seko said.

Earlier Wednesday, the central government held a meeting with Fukui Gov. Issei Nishikawa, who told reporters afterward that he remains opposed to scrapping the facility.

Nishikawa said in the meeting that decommissioning cannot begin without the approval of both the prefecture and Tsuruga.

“The governor told us today … that he wants a more thorough explanation of the specific mechanisms by which decommissioning will be carried out,” Seko said after the decision was made. “We will create opportunities for dialogue with the local area.”

Nishikawa had said at a similar meeting Monday that the central government had not given a sufficient justification for decommissioning Monju or considered the plant’s operation history sufficiently.

He has also argued that the Japan Atomic Energy Agency, which operates Monju, is incapable of safely dismantling the reactor.

A nuclear regulatory body recommended last year that the JAEA be disqualified from operating the facility following revelations of mismanagement, including a massive number of equipment inspection failures in 2012.

Science minister Hirokazu Matsuno instructed JAEA President Toshio Kodama on Wednesday to come up with a decommissioning plan by around April next year. The government has said it plans to take third-party technical opinions into account in working out how the decommissioning will take place.