Gov’t set to continue nuclear fuel cycle project despite Monju closure
The government formally decided at a meeting of Cabinet ministers concerned with nuclear energy on Dec. 21 to decommission the trouble-plagued Monju prototype fast-breeder nuclear reactor in Tsuruga, Fukui Prefecture.
Over 1 trillion yen in taxpayers’ money has so far been invested in the reactor — the core facility in the government’s nuclear fuel cycle project in which spent nuclear fuel is reprocessed and reused in nuclear reactors.
Nevertheless, Monju, operated by the government-affiliated Japan Atomic Energy Agency (JAEA), will be shut down after being in operation for a total of only 250 days since the reactor reached criticality for the first time in 1994.
Still, the government, which is poised to continue the nuclear fuel cycle project, also agreed at the Dec. 21 meeting to draw up a road map by 2018 toward developing a fast reactor for the project.
In other words, the government is moving toward its “next dream” even without clarifying the cause of the failure of what they called “dream nuclear reactor” Monju and who is responsible for the fiasco.
“It’s extremely important to maintain the nuclear fuel cycle project and promote the development of a fast reactor,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told a news conference following the decision.
However, continuation of the project will likely pose a challenge. The government’s nuclear fuel cycle project involves two cycles — one centered on a fast-breeder reactor and the other in which mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel, nuclear fuel made from reprocessed plutonium and uranium, is used in nuclear plants.
With the decision to decommission Monju, the cycle involving a fast-breeder reactor has failed. At the same time, the government has failed to smoothly press forward with the cycle involving the use of MOX fuel since most nuclear power plants have been idled since the outbreak of the Fukushima nuclear crisis in March 2011. The No. 3 reactor at Shikoku Electric Power Co.’s Ikata plant is the only nuclear reactor using MOX fuel, which is currently in operation.
A spent nuclear fuel reprocessing plant in Aomori Prefecture is undergoing safety screening by the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA), and pools holding spent nuclear fuel at atomic power stations across the country are filled to 70 percent of their capacities on average. Japan’s stockpile of plutonium, which can be converted to use in nuclear weapons, has kept growing. By the end of 2015, the plutonium Japan possessed domestically and overseas had amounted to 47.9 metric tons.
The development of a fast reactor poses technological challenges. While a breeder reactor is designed to increase the amount of plutonium, the government emphasizes that a fast reactor that it is aiming to develop will play the role of an “incinerator” for nuclear waste such as by reducing the volume of high-level radioactive waste.
However, no experiment has been conducted on a fast reactor using actual radioactive waste. Hirofumi Nakamura, head of JAEA’s planning and coordination division, acknowledged that the technology has not even reached the stage prior to putting it into practical use.
Serious questions persist about the feasibility of a fast reactor for economic reasons, and such a reactor is often dubbed as “modern alchemy.”
The basic structure of a fast reactor and that of a breeder reactor are basically the same with the only differences being fuel types and arrangements. Therefore, a fast reactor, which is supposed to play the role of an incinerator for spent nuclear fuel, could be converted into a breeder reactor that produces plutonium.
A senior official of JAEA admits that “there is room for converting a fast reactor into one that breeds (plutonium).”
A fast reactor can be put into practical use after the development and production of experimental, prototype and then demonstration reactors. The government participates in the joint development of ASTRID, a French demonstration fast reactor. However, it remains unclear whether data and knowledge gained from the project in France, which is rarely hit by earthquakes, can be utilized in quake-prone Japan.
France is aiming to begin to operate the fast reactor in the 2030s, but the necessary funds for the project have only been allocated up to 2019. Questions remain as to whether Japan, which has aborted its project involving Monju, a prototype reactor, can be involved in a project to develop an upper-tier demonstration reactor.
Even those within the governing coalition are calling for caution in Japan’s involvement in the joint development project in France. “Japan shouldn’t ride on someone’s (France’s) back,” said Hiroshi Hase, former education, culture, sports, science and technology minister.
NRA Chairman Shunichi Tanaka dismissed the feasibility of a demonstration reactor. “I understand that a demonstration reactor isn’t realistic,” Tanaka told a news conference on Dec. 21.
Government still refuses to face up to reality, failure of Monju project
The government officially decided on Dec. 21 to decommission the troubled Monju prototype fast-breeder reactor and instead develop a new fast reactor to maintain Japan’s nuclear fuel recycling program.
The decision can be likened to a theater director determined not to declare an end to production despite dropping the spendthrift leading actor whose scandals have prevented him from performing on stage.
Fearing possible repercussions from the termination of the production, the director keeps promising to stage the play “sometime in the future.” The director refuses to say clearly when the play will be staged because there is no actor in sight who can substitute for the dismissed one.
But this policy decision cannot be simply laughed away as an absurd piece of political theatrics. An enormous amount of taxpayer money has already been poured into Monju, and the government is poised to spend a huge additional amount to deal with its demise.
There is no doubt the Monju project has been a costly failure. The government cannot be allowed to put the debacle behind it by simply scrapping the experimental reactor and having the science and technology minister offer to return part of his salary for several months.
Despite an injection of more than 1 trillion yen ($8.5 billion) of public funds into the project, the reactor has been mostly out of operation for the 20-odd years since it first reached criticality in 1994. Decommissioning the reactor will require an additional expenditure of nearly 400 billion yen, according to a government estimate.
An exhaustive postmortem for the project to identify the causes of its failure is in order.
The government should not waste any more money or make unreasonable efforts to keep its nuclear fuel recycling program alive.
The government has made the questionable claim that “a certain amount of useful knowledge” has been acquired through the Monju project that can be used to develop a new fast reactor. Instead, the government should confront the grim reality of this undertaking.
Four years ago, the science and technology ministry submitted a report on technological achievements in the Monju project to the Japan Atomic Energy Commission.
The report included estimated levels of achievements, weighted in terms of importance, in different areas.
The degree of achievement, expressed as a percentage, for equipment and system tests was, for instance, 16 percent. The figure for reactor core tests and irradiation issues was 31 percent, while that for operation and maintenance was nil. The overall achievement level was estimated at 16 percent.
Does the government believe this poor track record justifies its claim that “a certain amount of useful knowledge” has been obtained?
The clear moral of the Monju saga is that a huge price must be paid for failing to take a hard look at the reality and underestimating risks and problems.
Serious concerns about the cost-effectiveness of a nuclear fuel recycling program and the risk of nuclear proliferation from accumulating stockpiles of plutonium led many countries to give up developing fast-breeder reactors. Japan, however, bucked the trend and embarked on building Monju.
When sodium leaks occurred overseas, Japanese proponents insisted that such an accident would not happen at the Monju reactor.
When a sodium leak accident did occur at Monju in 1995, they made false announcements and covered up vital information.
Monju resumed operations in 2010 after a long hiatus, but mechanical trouble soon caused it to be shut down again.
Eventually, the ability and competence of the Monju operator, Japan Atomic Energy Agency, was called into question.
The government’s decision to decommission the reactor has long been delayed apparently because of fears that the step would raise questions about how to reprocess spent nuclear fuel in the recycling process and could have a negative impact on nuclear power generation itself.
The government should take this opportunity to confront the reality of its nuclear fuel recycling policy and try to create a new nuclear power policy that can win support of the public through open and broad debate.
Forging ahead with the plan to develop a fast reactor without following this process would be tantamount to betraying the people.
Editorial: Time to scrap nuclear fuel cycle, not just Monju reactor
The government formally decided on Dec. 21 to decommission Japan’s Monju prototype fast-breeder nuclear reactor, yet will continue to pursue the nuclear fuel cycle in which plutonium is extracted from spent fuel through reprocessing to be used again. This stance by the government takes the existence of fast reactors and the nuclear fuel cycle as a foregone conclusion.
Over 1 trillion yen in public funds has been injected into the Monju project, yet due to recurring trouble and scandals, the reactor has operated for just 250 days over 22 years. The Nuclear Regulation Authority went as far as to point out that Monju’s operator, the Japan Atomic Energy Agency, was not capable of running the reactor and should be replaced.
It is only natural for the reactor to be scrapped, but there remains a problem in that the government has closed its eyes to various issues in reaching its decision. Why was it unable to act sooner to put an end to the waste of taxpayers’ money and decommission the reactor? Disregarding any probe into such issues, the government went ahead and made its decision behind closed doors. This is no way to win public approval.
An even more fundamental problem is that while the government is set to decommission the Monju reactor, it has decided to proceed with the development of a demonstration fast reactor — a step up from Monju.
Fast reactors form a cornerstone of the nuclear fuel cycle. The decommissioning of Monju should mean the cycle is broken, and if that is the case, then what needs to be reviewed above all is the fuel cycle policy itself.
The government, however, is still trying to promote fast reactor development, on the grounds that maintenance of the nuclear fuel cycle was included in the nation’s basic energy policy that the Cabinet approved in 2014.
As a step in that direction, the government has proposed taking part in France’s project to build the Astrid fast demonstration reactor, but the feasibility of this project remains unclear, and the government’s move sticks out as a seemingly stop-gap measure.
The reason the government has stuck to maintaining the nuclear fuel cycle is that as soon as it takes down its fuel cycle banner, spent fuel that was previously a “resource” becomes mere “waste.” As a result, the Aomori Prefectural Government would probably have to ask power companies to take back the “resources” that have been piling up at the nuclear fuel reprocessing facility in the prefecture. And once the storage pools for spent fuel at the nation’s nuclear power plants are full, those plants’ reactors will have to be taken offline.
Politicians should be sitting down and working out measures to solve this problem; maintenance of the nuclear fuel cycle should not be used as an expedient.
Some may see officials as wanting to maintain the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel from the viewpoint of potential nuclear deterrence, but this position lacks persuasiveness.
Five years and nine months have now passed since the onset of the disaster at the Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant, and as we prepare to usher in a new year, there are still people living in temporary dwellings and other places to which they evacuated. And the government is trying to widely push the swelling costs of the disaster cleanup, reactor decommissioning, and compensation payments onto the public.
Looking squarely at this reality, fast reactor development is not something the government should be placing priority on tackling. It should give up on the nuclear fuel cycle and put the money to use in measures to assist Fukushima’s recovery.