National

Panel holds first meeting on finding new Monju reactor operator

Kyodo

A government panel held its first meeting Monday to find a new operator for the Monju prototype fast-breeder reactor, as recommended by the National Regulation Authority.

The panel, set up by the education and science ministry, aims to conclude discussions and report its decision to the NRA within six months.

“We will make a decision on a new operator based on (the panel members’) expert knowledge,” education and science minister Hiroshi Hase said at the beginning of the meeting.

The NRA recommended in November that the minister pick a new entity to take charge of trouble-prone Monju, as it sees little progress in safety management under the current operator, the government-backed Japan Atomic Energy Agency.

The head of the NRA urged Hase to consider measures to ensure the reactor’s safety, including closing it if a replacement entity can’t be found within six months.

The government has been trying to develop a commercial fast-breeder reactor that can produce more plutonium than it consumes in a bid to recycle nuclear fuel in the future. Plutonium can be used as nuclear fuel by mixing it with uranium.

The government has spent more than ¥1 trillion on the project, but Monju’s repeated safety problems have left it idle much of the time since it first achieved criticality in 1994.

Industry observers said it will be hard to find a successor to operate the reactor, as it generates electricity in a more complex way than light-water reactors that utilities run at present.

Monju’s closure could lead to a drastic review of a nuclear policy the government has pursued for decades.

Akito Arima, the chief of the eight-member panel, said after the meeting that he doesn’t have a clear outlook at present for who could be a successor.

A former president of the University of Tokyo and education minister, Arima said he won’t rule out the possibility of shutting down the reactor. But he added that “the chance is low” as he believes engineers’ knowledge of such an advanced reactor and the large-scale investment to date should be put to maximum use.

During the meeting, the education and science ministry proposed main points of discussion, such as technology needed to run the project and how safety should be managed.

The panel members include scholars and those engaged in the nuclear power business.

Hase said after the meeting he is considering adding or changing members of the panel as discussions advance.

The ministry initially planned to hold the first meeting by mid-December, but it took longer than planned to form the panel as some people declined to serve on it.

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