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Monju: Till when?

May 25, 2016

How long will Monju limp on?

It seems the government is trying to shelve a decision on the fate of the troubled Monju prototype fast-breeder reactor. A panel of experts at the education and science ministry, created in response to a recommendation by the Nuclear Regulation Authority in November that the ministry replace the operator of the long-dormant facility in Tsuruga, Fukui Prefecture or “fundamentally review” the program itself, has compiled a report calling for beefing up governance of the Monju operator without identifying who should take over its operation from the government-backed Japan Atomic Energy Agency (JAEA) — which was declared by the NRA as unfit to safely operate the fast-breeder reactor.

Based on the report, the ministry reportedly hopes to specify a new operator by summer — likely after the Upper House election in July — in its response to the NRA. But it seems questionable that the ministry can come up with a credible answer that can convince the NRA in just a few months. Monju’s operator has been revamped and reorganized over the two decades since its 1995 sodium coolant leak and fire — during which the reactor was mostly kept offline — but as repeatedly pointed out by the nuclear regulator, little improvement has been made in its operation. The power industry, which runs its own nuclear power plants, is reluctant to take charge of the reactor, which it says is still in the “research and development phase.”

A glance at Monju’s history would leave one wondering why no decision has been made yet to decommission the troubled facility. Once called a “dream reactor” designed to produce more plutonium than it consumes as fuel in this energy-scarce country, Monju first reached criticality in 1994 but has been in operation for only 250 days in total over the past 21 years. The 1995 accident exposed the difficulty of managing its unique technological feature of using sodium as a coolant. After being idled for 14 years, it was briefly put back online in 2010 — only to be halted again due to another accident. Subsequent revelations of sloppy safety checkups by the operator led the NRA to effectively order a ban on Monju’s operation.

More than ¥1 trillion in taxpayer money has so far been poured into Monju, the sole prototype reactor of the technology deemed to be a crucial component of the nation’s policy of seeking a nuclear fuel cycle — in which spent fuel from nuclear power plants would be reprocessed into fresh fuel. Even though the reactor has been kept offline for most of the past two decades, its maintenance alone costs ¥20 billion a year. A recent estimate by its operator reportedly showed that it would cost at least ¥43 billion to restart Monju under the NRA’s new tighter safety standards — a figure that is not believed to reflect the extra cost of reactivating the long-idled facility. Meanwhile, most other countries have given up on commercializing the fast-breeder reactor technology due to the technical hurdles and the massive costs involved.

Still, the government keeps the Monju project alive, and remains hesitant to review its troubled nuclear fuel cycle policy. The experts panel, led by former University of Tokyo dean and education minister Akito Arima, did not examine the wisdom of keeping the costly project going. Instead, as it says in the report to be finalized in its ninth and final session on Friday, it mostly focused on what will be required of its new operator — on the assumption that it will continue. The draft report at the same time says that it will be difficult to restart Monju unless safety concerns about the reactor on the part of the NRA and the public have been addressed.

In its draft report, the panel points out that Monju’s government-backed operator has relied on power companies and plant makers for reactor maintenance. As a result, Monju’s proper workers have not attained sufficient technological expertise and training. In addition, its brief period online — essentially limited to just two years after reaching criticality — left little accumulation of knowledge about its operation and the workers who had actual experience running the plant have retired without passing on their knowledge.

The report calls for improving the governance of Monju’s operator by introducing outside experts to take part in its management and operation. But it lacks much further specifics on how such changes can overcome the problems that marred JAEA’s operation of the reactor. It’s not even clear whether the panel or the ministry has either a new operator or revamping the current operator once again in mind.

It remains to be seen what decision the science ministry will make based on the panel’s report, and how the NRA will evaluate the decision. But discussions so far do not appear to provide convincing grounds for continuing the Monju project.


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