16 Septembre 2016
September 15, 2016
The government is assessing what to do about the Monju prototype fast-breeder nuclear reactor, with one option being to decommission the trouble-prone facility.
It should decide swiftly to scrap the experimental reactor in Tsuruga, Fukui Prefecture.
Monju has remained mostly idle for the past two decades or so. Restarting it would be hugely expensive. Putting the necessary safety measures in place would require an outlay of hundreds of billions of yen. The obvious solution is staring the government in the face.
Monju was designed to underpin a nuclear fuel recycling program in which plutonium extracted from reprocessed spent nuclear fuel is burned in a fast-breeder reactor. The ability to generate more fissile material than is consumed was regarded as “dream” technology.
But Monju has been mostly offline since a sodium coolant leak accident in 1995.
In 2012, it was revealed that safety maintenance checks had missed about 10,000 pieces of equipment. In response, the Nuclear Regulation Authority halted preparations to bring the reactor back online. It urged the science and technology minister last November to find a new operator for the reactor in place of the government-backed Japan Atomic Energy Agency.
The science and technology ministry has apparently been weighing plans to separate the Monju-related section from the agency and put the unit in charge of maintenance and management of the reactor.
But that would do nothing but change the name of the operator. No wonder this idea has been met with skepticism and criticism within the government.
No one in the electric power industry, which would be the primary beneficiary of the fast-breeder reactor if it ever went into practical use, is calling for early development of the technology.
That’s not surprising, given that producing the necessary fuel and developing the technology to use sodium would require a huge investment in time and money.
The power industry, meanwhile, has been pushing to restart ordinary nuclear reactors, partly because uranium is now easily available and cheap.
With liberalization of the power market making their business environment much harsher, the private-sector companies have every reason to be reluctant to cheer for the Monju program.
The ministry appears to be trying to persuade the electric utilities and related manufacturers to become part of the new Monju operator. But it has been a hard sell.
More than 1 trillion yen ($9.7 billion) has been poured into the development and operation of Monju.
The power industry and other private-sector players provided around 140 billion yen to cover a portion of the construction costs. But the rest of the funding for the beleaguered program has come from the pockets of taxpayers.
The fast-breeder reactor requires 20 billion yen in annual maintenance costs. The government can hardly expect to win public support for such a massive drain in taxpayer money when there is little prospect of the technology coming into practical use.
Research on fast reactor technology and radioactive waste can be accomplished--as long as safety is ensured--by using other existing facilities like the Joyo experimental fast reactor in Ibaraki Prefecture.
It is difficult to secure sufficient human resources for a plan that doesn’t seem to have a viable future. There are also concerns about technology and information management and accident prevention efforts for Monju.
The troubled history of Monju clearly argues against keeping the program alive.
The establishment of a nuclear fuel recycling program itself is becoming a dead letter, and the government needs to reconsider this policy goal from scratch.
As for Monju, there is no doubt that decommissioning the reactor is the only rational choice.
--The Asahi Shimbun, Sept. 15