The decision by nuclear power regulators to call for a change in the operator of Monju, the nation’s sole prototype fast-breeder reactor, not only puts the fate of the trouble-prone project in question but raises serious doubts about the government’s decades-old policy of seeking to establish a nuclear fuel cycle. The government should take the upcoming recommendations from the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) as a cue to rethink the controversial and effectively stalled policy itself.

Monju, on which the government spent ¥1 trillion to build, was once touted as a “dream” reactor that produces more plutonium than it consumes as fuel — a boon for resource-scarce Japan. It was also billed as a key component of the nuclear fuel cycle, in which spent fuel from nuclear power plants is reprocessed into plutonium-uranium mixed oxide (MOX) fuel to be reused at fast-breeder reactors and other types of nuclear reactors.

But the plant in Tsuruga, Fukui Prefecture, has been kept offline for most of the past two decades. After first reaching criticality in 1994 and starting to generate electricity the following year, Monju was shut down in December 1995 due to a sodium coolant leak and fire, and remained idled for more than 14 years until it briefly resumed operation in 2010 — when another accident forced it to be halted again. Subsequent revelations of sloppy safety checkups by its operator, the government-backed Japan Atomic Energy Agency, led the NRA to effectively order a ban on Monju’s operations.

Judging that no substantial improvement has since been made in the plant’s management, the NRA decided last week that it would shortly recommend to the education and science minister that the JAEA is unfit to run Monju and should be replaced by a new entity to operate the reactor. Unless a new operator is found within half a year, the NRA reportedly plans to urge the government to fundamentally review Monju’s management, including its possible decommissioning. Although the recommendation is not legally binding, it would effectively be difficult to resume the reactor’s operation unless the NRA is convinced by the science minister’s response.

Monju’s operator has been revamped and reorganized since it was shut down in the wake of the 1995 fire and associated problems, but the plant has primarily been run by officials carried over from the original operator, the Power Reactor and Nuclear Fuel Development Corp., to deal with the special fast-breeder reactor technology — which most other countries have given up on commercializing due to technical hurdles and the massive costs involved. It is deemed difficult for the government to quickly find a new entity to operate the troubled plant, and the NRA’s recommendation may put the survival of the Monju project in doubt.

The troubles that have plagued Monju for most of its life are only part of the problems that confront the government policy to create a nuclear fuel cycle. The completion of a nuclear fuel reprocessing plant in Rokkasho, Aomori Prefecture, has been delayed for years due to a series of technical glitches and other problems, and its construction cost has already tripled to around ¥2 trillion.

As the prospect of commercialization of the fast-breeder technology appeared remote given Monju’s problems, the government has pushed for the use of MOX fuel — processed overseas and shipped back to Japan — at several light-water reactors at nuclear power plants to promote the use of plutonium extracted from spent fuel. But those plants were shut down along with all the others in the wake of the March 2011 triple meltdowns at Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima No. 1 plant.

Since it came to power, the Abe administration has sought to put the idled nuclear reactors back online once they’ve cleared the NRA’s screening under a new set of safety standards, and the government says it will continue to pursue the establishment of the nuclear fuel cycle. However, the restart of idled reactors remains slow amid public safety concerns over nuclear power, and power companies are starting to decommission aging reactors under the new tighter standards.

The government needs to stop and consider whether it makes economic sense to keep up the costly nuclear fuel cycle program that supposedly makes the most of uranium resources if — as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe keeps saying — Japan is going to reduce its reliance on nuclear power “as much as possible” to meet its energy needs. If the Rokkasho plant does go online and starts reprocessing spent fuel from power plants across Japan, the nation may end up with more plutonium in addition to the 44 tons that have already been stockpiled, at a time when many nuclear power plants, including the MOX-capable ones, remain shut down. This situation may raise international concern from the viewpoint of preventing the proliferation of nuclear materials.

The recommendation to review the long-dormant Monju project should give the government, the power industry and the public an opportunity to also reassess the wisdom of pursuing the establishment of a nuclear fuel cycle program.

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