Hiroshige Seko, right, minister of economy, trade and industry, before a meeting of the government’s committee for fast reactor development on Nov. 30
Japan unable to scrap recycling program due to plutonium stocks
Japan is caught between a rock and a hard place when it comes to pressing ahead with its dream of a perpetual energy source through nuclear fuel recycling.
Having poured hundreds of billions of yen into the failed Monju prototype fast-breeder reactor project, it is belatedly considering decommissioning the facility. But it is still left with a huge stockpile of plutonium, and no way of reducing the amount in the coming years.
Having come this far, Japan is simply not able to abandon the problem-plagued, money-guzzling technology, hence its Nov. 30 plan to build a demonstration fast reactor to replace Monju.
Unlike Monju, which uses and generates plutonium, a fast reactor only burns plutonium.
“If Japan abandoned its nuclear fuel recycling policy, it would be like opening ‘Pandora’s box,’” said a senior official at the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, which oversees the nation’s nuclear energy policy, referring to the new fast reactor program. “A project illustrating Japan’s intent to continue the development of a fast reactor serves as the seal of approval.”
The government’s committee for fast reactor development, which is headed by industry minister Hiroshige Seko, said it expects to have the development regime in place in 2018. The following 10 years would be given over to scientists to work on the basic design of the fast reactor.
A demonstration reactor is one stage closer to a commercial reactor compared with a prototype reactor such as Monju.
Nuclear fuel recycling uses plutonium recovered from reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel generated at nuclear power plants.
Monju in Tsuruga, Fukui Prefecture, also uses plutonium as fuel. Or rather, it was supposed to. The project has come under intense criticism because it has hardly operated since it achieved criticality more than 20 years ago. The government has poured about 1 trillion yen ($8.9 billion) into Monju.
If Japan pulled the plug on the development of a fast reactor, it would jeopardize the nuclear fuel recycling program and create new problems that the government has adroitly avoided dealing with to date.
For one, all spent nuclear fuel from nuclear power plants across the country would suddenly just become “waste.”
As a result, the government would have no compelling reason to justify the storage of nuclear fuel waste at the spent nuclear fuel reprocessing plant in Rokkasho, Aomori Prefecture. The plant has yet to be completed although it was initially expected to be finished in 1997.
The government has been unable to decide where nuclear waste should be placed for permanent disposal since no municipalities in Japan want such facilities in their backyards.
And then there is the issue of Japan’s stockpile of 48 tons of plutonium and being able to offer assurances to the international community that this country poses no threat to others.
The stockpile is sufficient to produce 6,000 atomic weapons.
If Japan retains the plutonium stockpile with no plan to use it in the near future after it abandons the development of a fast reactor, it could fuel international concerns that Japan may have nuclear ambitions.
The agreement between Japan and the United States concerning the civil use of atomic energy will expire in July 2018.
The pact allows Japan to recover plutonium from spent nuclear fuel on the condition that the country will not use plutonium to manufacture nuclear weapons.
If Japan holds on to the reprocessing program while scrapping the project to develop a fast reactor, it will be left with an ever-growing stockpile of plutonium.
“We cannot rule out the possibility that it could have ramifications on the revision of the agreement,” said a senior official at the Foreign Ministry with regard to the plutonium issue.
Tatsujiro Suzuki, a professor of nuclear energy at Nagasaki University and former vice chairman of the government’s Nuclear Energy Commission, expressed skepticism about taking on a new fast reactor project when scientists could elicit few tangible results about performance and operational safety from Monju.
With the government set to undertake a new reactor project, Japan is also banking on joining France’s ASTRID program to access a range of data on the operation of a demonstration fast reactor. This refers to the Advanced Sodium Technological Reactor for Industrial Demonstration.
But it is still unclear even whether the ASTRID program will ever go ahead.
“If we engaged in discussions with little transparency, the international community would come to harbor doubts about Japan’s intention concerning plutonium and lose confidence in Japan,” Suzuki said.
Plan to build Monju successor is outrageously irresponsible
The government at a closed meeting on Nov. 30 revealed plans to develop a demonstration fast reactor as the successor to the Monju prototype fast-breeder reactor in Fukui Prefecture, which will be decommissioned.
A totally irrational policy decision is now being made behind closed doors only by people with vested interests in the trouble-plagued Monju program.
The government is making a head-long plunge into another costly reactor project that has no solid prospects of success. The government has not scrutinized nor learned lessons from the miserable failure of the Monju program.
This behavior is outrageously irresponsible.
More than 1 trillion yen ($8.8 billion) has been poured into the development and operation of Monju, but the reactor operated for only around 220 days during the 20-plus years since it first achieved criticality in 1994.
The experimental reactor has been mostly idle because of a series of accidents and troubles, including a 1995 leak of liquid sodium used as the coolant, a material that is famously hard to handle.
In contrast, the Joyo test fast reactor, which represents the first stage of developing a practical fast-breeder reactor, has operated for a total of 3,000 days, more than 13 times longer than Monju’s record.
This again shows that technological challenges involved in the development of such sophisticated new technology become far more formidable as the project moves to the later stages.
Unlike Monju, the new experimental fast reactor envisioned by the government would not be a breeder reactor that generates more fissile material–plutonium to be exact–than it consumes. But it will be based on the same fast reactor technology.
Given that even operating a prototype fast-breeder reactor has proved such a fierce challenge, there are countless reasons to doubt the viability of the government’s plan to develop a cheap and safe demonstration fast reactor.
The government says it will seek international cooperation for the project. But France’s Advanced Sodium Technological Reactor for Industrial Demonstration (ASTRID) program, which the Japanese government is counting on for its fast reactor project, is itself facing an unclear future. The French government is expected to decide in 2019 on whether to build the fast demonstration reactor.
The Japanese government is not even bothering to set up a proper forum for discussions on the new project.
The Nov. 30 meeting was attended by the industry minister, the science and technology minister, representatives of the Federation of Electric Power Companies, which is the power industry lobby, executives of Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd., which makes nuclear reactors, and officials of the Japan Atomic Energy Agency, the operator of Monju. They are all parties involved in the Monju program.
The two officials of Japan Atomic Energy Agency who were present at the meeting are a former Mitsubishi Heavy Industries executive and a former science and technology official.
In other words, the decision-making process concerning the project is totally controlled by the interests of the government and the nuclear power industry.
Why is the government so fixated on developing fast reactor technology?
Monju has long been cast as the linchpin of a nuclear fuel recycling program in which plutonium extracted from reprocessed spent nuclear fuel is burned in a fast-breeder reactor.
Now that it has decided to decommission Monju, the government is apparently concerned that the lack of the troubled reactor’s successor could cause the entire nuclear fuel recycling program to collapse, undermining its efforts to promote nuclear power generation.
Japan, however, already has a stockpile of 48 tons of plutonium, enough to make 6,000 ordinary nuclear bombs.
With no prospects of practical use of a fast reactor, Japan’s fixation on establishing a nuclear fuel recycling system makes no economic sense and only raises suspicions in the international community.
The government has been roundly criticized for its obstinate adherence to nuclear power policy decisions made in the past.
But the disaster that occurred in 2011 at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant has led to broad public recognition of the importance of impartial debate on related issues not influenced by special interests or past developments.
Now, however, the government is ignoring the lessons learned from the nuclear disaster. It is seeking to make the decision in collusive meetings to spend a huge amount of taxpayer money on the highly questionable fast reactor project. This folly cannot be acceptable by any means.