KYOTO - In February 1983, Mayor Koichi Takagi of Tsuruga, Fukui Prefecture, spoke to residents in the town of Shiga, Ishikawa Prefecture, who were hoping the town would be chosen as the site for a new nuclear power plant.
Tsuruga already hosted two conventional reactors and, just a couple weeks before Takagi’s visit to Shiga, preparations began for the construction of a new fast-breeder reactor called Monju, named after the bodhisattva of wisdom. An old Japanese saying goes: “out of the counsel of three comes the wisdom of Monju,” meaning that, by putting their heads together, even those of ordinary intelligence can think up an idea as good as one from Monju.
Takagi, who also served as head of a nationwide group of mayors whose towns and villages hosted nuclear plants, had some sage advice for his audience. He said nuclear plants were a cash cow and that the media just sensationalized reports of mishaps.
Thirty-three years later, the Monju plant appears heading for the scrap heap. Its history has been one of controversy and scandals, including a 1995 sodium leak and fire, and subsequent cover-up attempt.
Last month, the government decided on an overhaul of the Monju project, looking to decommission the idle facility.
Tsuruga is unhappy that the cash cow, which meant billions of yen to the local economy over the decades, is drying up, while the central government faces questions about the entire future of Japan’s nuclear fuel cycle program.
Monju began as a policy decision made nearly a half century ago in reaction to what was seen as a worldwide problem in the conventional nuclear industry, a scarcity of uranium for conventional nuclear plants.
“According to the industry vision of the middle of the 1970s, plutonium-fueled breeder reactors were supposed to replace uranium-fueled light water reactors in order to save what was thought to be scarce natural uranium resources in a world with rapidly expanding nuclear power programs,” said Mycle Schneider, a Canada-based nuclear energy consultant.
“The International Atomic Energy Agency then forecasted over 4,000 conventional reactors in the world for the year 2000. In reality, only one-tenth of the plants was built, more uranium resources were identified, and the uranium price plunged.”
Decommissioning Monju is expected to take three decades, once it finally gets under way. But a host of fundamental questions remain about not only Monju but also Japan’s nuclear fuel-recycling program, in which Monju was to have played a critical role.
On a practical level, these questions begin with how much the entire decommissioning process will cost. In 2012, the Science, Education, and Technology Ministry estimated that it would require at least ¥300 billion.
But that estimate does not include how much the central government might have to spend in Tsuruga and Fukui Prefecture over the coming years on various forms of public works projects in exchange for smooth local political cooperation in scrapping Monju. Over ¥1 trillion has already been spent on the plant.
Fukui residents and politicians are sure to raise strong objections if the central government concludes the only viable option for the tons of high-level radioactive waste generated by Monju’s decommissioning process is to store at least part of it within the prefecture.
With three conventional nuclear reactors in the prefecture scheduled to be scrapped by midcentury, Gov. Issei Ishikawa has warned he will not tolerate having Fukui serve as a nuclear garbage dump. He has demanded that waste generated from decommissioning be disposed of outside the prefecture.
Adding Monju to the list of reactors to be decommissioned means seeking further local cooperation. That may only come after guarantees of more central government support, in the form of tax money, to help Fukui bear the burden of the decommissioning.
Meanwhile, question marks are cast over the remainder of Japan’s nuclear fuel recycling program, especially the Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant in Aomori Prefecture. However, experts say it is unlikely to get the ax anytime soon.
“Terminating Rokkasho and plutonium policy remains a long way off due to the vested interests and impacts this would have on nuclear power. But the Monju decision is a major step along that path,” said Shaun Burnie, senior nuclear specialist with Greenpeace Germany, who follows Japan’s nuclear power policy closely.
“In immediate terms, (Monju’s decommissioning) will not impact the use of MOX fuel in light water reactors. That’s more affected by the lack of operating reactors with Ikata No. 3 being the only MOX-fueled reactor operating; Rokkasho justification will be based on using MOX fuel in LWR’s most particularly at Oma.”
The Oma nuclear power plant in Aomori Prefecture, which is scheduled to start operating in fiscal 2024, will run 100 percent on MOX fuel.
For many in Fukui who have long opposed Monju, there are also concerns about not shutting down the entire nuclear fuel recycling program and suspicions that despite the government’s policy of not possessing, manufacturing or introducing nuclear weapons, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government wants to keep that option open, as a diplomatic tool at least, via the fuel recycling program.
“Japan has about 48 tons of plutonium stockpiled domestically and in Europe, and we need to be careful. The plutonium could be converted into nuclear weapons, and we need to make sure it’s not used for this purpose,” said Tetsuen Nakajima, abbot of Myotsu-ji, a Shingon Omuro temple in Wakasa Bay in Fukui Prefecture, and a long-time anti-nuclear activist.
Such suspicions remain because Abe has in the past said he believes the possession of “small” nuclear weapons would not violate the Constitution. Members of his Cabinet, notably Defense Minister Tomomi Inada, who is from Fukui, have also argued previously for a national debate on the matter.
Finally, experts question what the government’s intentions are for a new committee on fast-breeder reactors it plans to form by year-end. The new committee will be centered in the Ministry for Economy, Trade and Industry, and the Education, Science and Technology Ministry, and will include nuclear power-related government agencies and representatives from the utilities and firms in the sector.
Keiji Kobayashi, a former nuclear physics instructor and fast-breeder expert at Kyoto University Research Reactor Institute, is a longtime opponent of Monju. He says Japan might not be done entirely with fast-breeder reactors.
“Plans for the committee include clarifying a goal on the development of a demonstration reactor and creating a detailed road (map) to achieving that goal,” he said. “Does that mean another reactor will be built? There are unanswered questions about what will happen to not only Monju but the fast-breeder reactor program in general.”
Kobayashi was referring to the possibility of Japan participating in France’s Advanced Sodium Technological Reactor for Industrial Demonstration (ASTRID) program to develop next generation fast-breeder reactor technology via research at a demonstration reactor for research purposes.
Burnie of Greenpeace Germany says ASTRID is still in the planning stage, over budget and behind schedule, and that the prospects for it being built in France are dim. In addition, while Japan’s METI backs the idea of a demonstration reactor with French cooperation, the education ministry is reportedly more skeptical, noting that France closed its Super Phoenix fast breeder reactor in 1997 after numerous accidents, including, like Monju, sodium leaks.