Fate of troubled Monju reactor hangs in balance

by Reiji Yoshida

Staff Writer

The fate of the nation’s troubled prototype fast-breeder reactor is up in the air amid continued questions over its safety and cost. Political challenges to the country’s nuclear policy are also taking a toll.

Taro Kono, the anti-nuclear Cabinet minister in charge of administrative reforms, has himself started attacking the Monju project, openly questioning the feasibility of the plant after a high-profile budget review by a team of experts Wednesday in Tokyo.

In a separate move, the Nuclear Regulation Authority was set to lodge a formal request for a change in the plant’s ownership. It was to ask the education and science ministry Friday to find a new operator after decades of serious problems that have shaken confidence.

The NRA’s recommendation could lead to Monju’s closure because it will be hard to find a replacement for the government-backed Japan Atomic Energy Agency (JAEA), observers say.

“This will be (Monju’s) last chance to win the trust of the nation,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told a news conference Thursday.

Kono, who was appointed as administrative reform minister in the Oct. 7 Cabinet reshuffle, has long been critical of the policy to develop a nuclear fuel cycle.

During the budget review session Wednesday, he criticized JAEA for wasting vast sums of money on maintaining the nuclear-fuel transport ship Kaiei Maru.

The ship, built in 2006, costs about ¥1.2 billion every year to maintain and has been used only four times.

“After all, you can’t tell if Monju will actually work or not,” Kono said following the session Wednesday.

“We need to examine whether budgets for certain related projects are really effective, such as those for nuclear fuel recycling,” he said, according to media reports.

Monju was designed to produce more plutonium fuel than it consumes. Fast-breeder reactors are a central component in the nuclear fuel recycling system the government still is trying to build, despite Monju’s lousy record of accidents and decades of idleness. One of the potential threats stems from the massive amount of dangerous sodium it contains as coolant.

In November 2012, it emerged that JAEA had failed to check as many as 10,000 of Monju’s components, as required by safety rules.

In May 2013, the NRA ordered JAEA to halt operations pending improvements to the plant’s management.

During a Nov. 4 news conference, NRA Chairman Shunichi Tanaka said the agency had yet to see significant improvement in JAEA’s management of the plant, and as a result it wanted the agency fired.

The education ministry will have six months to show how it will respond to the NRA’s request.

“Exactly 20 years ago, Monju had an accident involving a sodium leak. Ever since then, numerous measures have been taken to fix problems, but they haven’t been corrected yet,” Tanaka said.

Tanaka said the NRA had the legal power to retract its “construction permission” for Monju, which would force the government to close the prototype reactor immediately.

But the NRA was not thinking of the option “at this stage,” Tanaka quickly added.

He said the NRA was questioning only Monju’s safety, not the government’s nuclear recycling policy as a whole.

On Thursday, a high-ranking government official admitted the Monju project had drawn much public attention, saying the government should “provide an explanation that can be understood by every party.”

The official said JAEA had enjoyed such unqualified support from the government’s nuclear policy that it had been indulged a stretch too far.

“JAEA has become spoiled,” the official said.