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Japan's nuclear fuel project: What future?

 September 21, 2016


Decommissioning of Monju reactor would affect nuclear fuel cycle project



The government's decision to consider decommissioning the trouble-plagued Monju prototype fast-breeder reactor, because the state can no longer shoulder the heavy financial burden, will inevitably affect the nuclear fuel cycle project, in which spent nuclear fuel is reprocessed and reused.

A source close to the government lamented that the government's efforts to coordinate views over whether to continue the Monju project hit a snag as the Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry stuck to the continuation of the Monju project.

"Officials at the Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry only said, 'It'd be a problem if Monju were to be scrapped,' but failed to do anything. What has the ministry done so far?" the source said.

The dispute started when the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) advised the ministry in November 2015 to replace the government-backed Japan Atomic Energy Agency (JAEA) with a new entity as the operator of the fast-breeder reactor.

The technology ministry considered a new organization to operate Monju on the assumption that the reactor would be maintained. The ministry set up a study panel comprised of experts and compiled a report on the issue before the May 2016 deadline set by the NRA.

However, the report stopped short of specifying a new operator but only mentioned the requirements that a new operator must meet.

Based on the report, the ministry explored the possibility of splitting the division that operates and manages Monju from the JAEA and setting up a new corporation to take over the role with cooperation from the private sector, including power companies.

However, businesses have expressed a reluctance to cooperate with such a plan.

A high-ranking official of the Economy, Trade and Industry Ministry, which is responsible for energy policy, coolly reacted to the proposal shown by the technology ministry, which had failed to show an outlook for replacing the Monju operator even after the deadline set by the NRA. "Such a plan would never have been accepted," the official said.

After the technology ministry's study panel issued the report, calls within the industry ministry urging that Monju be decommissioned began to gain momentum.

The senior industry ministry official explained, "If Monju were to be retained, it could spark criticism of the entire nuclear fuel cycle project, which would adversely affect our duty to develop fast breeders and restart idled nuclear power plants."

Monju, which is the core of the government's nuclear fuel cycle project, is a prototype reactor to conduct tests aimed at putting fast-breeder reactors into practical use, and comes under the jurisdiction of the technology ministry. However, the industry ministry is responsible for establishing fast reactor technology aimed at commercializing such a reactor.

Those calling for decommissioning Monju mainly cite the massive amount of costs to maintain the reactor.

According to government sources, Monju needs to meet the new regulatory standards established by the NRA following the crisis at the tsunami-hit Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant before the prototype fast-breeder reactor can be restarted. Specifically, drastic refurbishment work on the reactor, including reinforcement of the facility to make it quake resistant, must be conducted. Furthermore, a factory in the Ibaraki Prefecture village of Tokai, which produces fuel for Monju, also needs to be drastically refurbished. Experts say it would take at least 10 years and cost taxpayers an additional amount of some 580 billion yen to restart the reactor.

As for the reason for aiming to maintain Monju at such huge costs, the technology ministry claimed, "Data gained from operating Monju can be used to build a next demonstration reactor, and is necessary to seamlessly continue the nuclear fuel cycle project."

However, the industry ministry dismissed the claim. "The costs of maintaining Monju would be almost equal to the costs of building a new demonstration reactor. Since the design of Monju is old, there is no need to spend such a huge amount of taxpayers' money to maintain the reactor," an industry ministry official said.

The Cabinet Secretariat played a key role in efforts to coordinate between the two ministries, but the ministries remained at odds over the matter.

However, the convening of an extraordinary Diet session on Sept. 26 was drawing near while the technology ministry failed to show a breakthrough.

A top official in the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe insisted that the executive branch should clarify its position on Monju before the extraordinary Diet session to avoid being grilled by opposition parties over the issue during deliberations.

The Cabinet Office, which is dominated by bureaucrats loaned from the industry ministry, overwhelmed the technology ministry and began considering decommissioning the reactor.

Even if the government decides to decommission Monju, it intends to continue the nuclear fuel cycle project, in which uranium and plutonium extracted from spent nuclear fuel is reused.

Officials are aiming to build a next demonstration reactor and eventually commercialize the nuclear fuel cycle project by using the Joyo demonstration reactor in the Ibaraki Prefecture town of Oarai, which is older than Monju, or conducting joint research with France at ASTRID, a new fast breeder that France is planning to build. However, there are no prospects of breaking the deadlock in the fuel cycle project.

Under the basic energy plan, which the Cabinet approved in June 2010, a new demonstration reactor would be activated by 2025 and the first reactor for commercial use be put into operation by 2050.

However, the schedule was effectively scrapped following the outbreak of the Fukushima nuclear crisis. The industry ministry and other government bodies will reschedule the plan, but the project will inevitably be greatly delayed.

Regarding the use of ASTRID, critics within the government say it is difficult to establish Japan's own nuclear fuel cycle technology by relying heavily on overseas technology.

If fast-breeder reactor technology can not be put into practical use in the foreseeable future, the core of the nuclear fuel cycle project would turn to the use of mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel consisting of reprocessed plutonium and uranium. However, it remains to be seen if the project will progress steadily.

The Federation of Electric Power Companies of Japan had planned to use MOX fuel in 16 to 18 commercial nuclear reactors across the country, but the plan is being delayed in the aftermath of the nuclear disaster. The No. 3 unit at Shikoku Electric Power Co.'s Ikata plant in Ehime Prefecture is the only nuclear reactor that uses such fuel.

Operations at Oma Nuclear Power Plant in Aomori Prefecture, which can run solely on MOX fuel, are expected to begin in fiscal 2024, two years later than initially planned. As a result, how Japan should consume surplus plutonium will pose a challenge to the international community.

Nevertheless, the government is sticking to the nuclear fuel cycle project partly because of the Japan-U.S. agreement on peaceful uses of nuclear energy, which allows Japan to reprocess spent nuclear fuel. The accord is expected to be automatically renewed when it expires in July 2018. However, if Monju, which is supposed to consume a great deal of MOX fuel, is to be decommissioned and little progress is made on the consumption of MOX fuel in atomic power stations in Japan, Washington could voice opposition to automatically renewing the bilateral agreement.

Japan has so far stockpiled 47.9 metric tons of surplus plutonium both in the country and overseas. It remains to be seen how the next U.S. administration, which will be formed following the November presidential election, will respond to the matter.

"The decommissioning of Monju is separate from the nuclear fuel cycle project," stressed a senior official of the Economy, Trade and Industry Ministry as he insisted that Monju be split from the fuel cycle project.



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