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NRA's recommendation on Monju: What impact?

November 14, 2015

NRA's Monju reactor recommendation could deal serious blow to nuclear fuel cycle





The Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) officially recommended on Nov. 13 that the troubled Monju fast breeder test reactor be taken out of the hands of the Japan Atomic Energy Agency (JAEA) -- a move that could deal a serious blow to Japan's decades-long "nuclear fuel cycle" policy.

The Ministry of Science, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology -- the JAEA's regulator -- will consider a new organization to operate the Monju facility possibly with the cooperation of utilities and foreign nuclear power companies. However, the range of candidates the science ministry could call on is severely limited in terms of technological prowess and overall capabilities. If the ministry cannot designate a new operator by the May 2016 deadline for responding to the NRA recommendations, it will be forced to consider more radical options, including decommissioning the Monju reactor.

The Monju reactor in Fukui Prefecture was built to run on MOX fuel -- a mix of plutonium and uranium processed from spent conventional nuclear fuel -- and produce yet more plutonium that could be made into yet more fuel. MOX fuel can also be put into conventional reactors, but the Monju project held the promise of creating a fuel loop and help resource-poor Japan become energy self-sufficient. The Monju plant, however, has spent the vast majority of its life shut down due to a string of accidents including a fire -- mishaps that played a major role in the NRA's recommendation to find a new operator for the facility.

After receiving the recommendation from NRA Chairman Shunichi Tanaka, science minister Hiroshi Hase said, "I want to get (Tanaka's) advice and guidance on how to proceed from here on" regarding putting together a new organization to operate the Monju plant. Tanaka, however, later commented at a news conference, "I've presented our recommendation, so I cannot also provide the answer," indicating he has no intention of participating in discussions on finding a new operator.

The JAEA has survived serious scandals and mishaps twice before by changing its name, but Tanaka explained that such a tactic wouldn't work this time around, saying, "It clearly states in the recommendation that a different organization" should take over the Monju project.

Of essential importance to the science ministry's search for a new operator is whether the candidate organization has the technology to handle liquid sodium. The substance is used in the Monju reactor as a coolant, but is also explosive if it comes into contact with air or water. The only domestic body that has any experience handling liquid sodium is the JAEA, so the science ministry plans to consider cooperating with foreign nuclear power companies on the Monju project.

Overseas candidates, however, are also hard to come by, as the United States, Britain and Germany have all given up on fast breeder reactors. Research advances into the technology were made in the 1950s and '60s in Europe and North America, but the volatility of liquid sodium proved a very serious roadblock, and many fast breeder projects had been suspended or cancelled by the 1990s.

Currently, only three countries are pursuing fast breeder reactor research seriously: Russia, China and India. Due to defense and nuclear security concerns, however, it looks very unlikely that Japan will be able to partner with any of these nations. Even the NRA's Tanaka said at the Nov. 13 news conference, "I can't determine that no organization (would take over the reactor). Very little research (on fast breeder reactors) is being done anywhere in the world and, personally, I will forgo a personal evaluation of the matter."


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