Panel holds first meeting on finding new Monju reactor operator


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.

  • Liars N. Fools

    The fact that Monju has not functioned for years means that there is no readily available team of people who have the practical know how to make the system work. It is a pipe dream to suggest that some new team or organization can be assembled. I have talked to a lot of nuclear experts in and around Kyoto University, and most are against a restart with a few wanting to realize something out of a project that has used up a lot of money and which might help deal with the spent fuel issues. But all have emphasized the enormous obstacles, technical and human resources, to a successful restart.

    • Richard Solomon

      How much more money and more time will be wasted pursuing a pipe dream like this?!? Experts outside of Japan have also given up trying to reformulate spent nuclear fuel. It’d be more sensible to store the stuff in dry casks made of cement in a secure location. But that would require that the NRA tell PM Abe and the nuclear village to admit defeat. They cannot seem to accept this reality. So they pursue these illusory goals instead.

      • Sam Gilman

        Richard, you do have a habit of posting falsehoods on this topic. I understand you’re religiously antinuclear, but you do need to get your facts right. You claim that “Experts outside of Japan have also given up trying to reformulate spent nuclear fuel”, yet Russia brought a fast breeder reactor online just this month. This has been known about for a while:

        Russia is hoping to quickly pave the way for commercializing fast-breeder technology and consolidate its status as a world leader while France, Japan and other countries are struggling in this area. Russia is also contemplating the future export of fast-breeder technology to other emerging nations with poor nuclear fuel resources.

        China – which is in the middle of a major nuclear expansion – is planning them too.