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New Monju : a "folly not acceptable by any means"

December 1, 2016

EDITORIAL: Plan to build Monju successor is outrageously irresponsible



The government at a closed meeting on Nov. 30 revealed plans to develop a demonstration fast reactor as the successor to the Monju prototype fast-breeder reactor in Fukui Prefecture, which will be decommissioned.

A totally irrational policy decision is now being made behind closed doors only by people with vested interests in the trouble-plagued Monju program.

The government is making a head-long plunge into another costly reactor project that has no solid prospects of success. The government has not scrutinized nor learned lessons from the miserable failure of the Monju program.

This behavior is outrageously irresponsible.

More than 1 trillion yen ($8.8 billion) has been poured into the development and operation of Monju, but the reactor operated for only around 220 days during the 20-plus years since it first achieved criticality in 1994.

The experimental reactor has been mostly idle because of a series of accidents and troubles, including a 1995 leak of liquid sodium used as the coolant, a material that is famously hard to handle.

In contrast, the Joyo test fast reactor, which represents the first stage of developing a practical fast-breeder reactor, has operated for a total of 3,000 days, more than 13 times longer than Monju’s record.

This again shows that technological challenges involved in the development of such sophisticated new technology become far more formidable as the project moves to the later stages.

Unlike Monju, the new experimental fast reactor envisioned by the government would not be a breeder reactor that generates more fissile material--plutonium to be exact--than it consumes. But it will be based on the same fast reactor technology.

Given that even operating a prototype fast-breeder reactor has proved such a fierce challenge, there are countless reasons to doubt the viability of the government’s plan to develop a cheap and safe demonstration fast reactor.

The government says it will seek international cooperation for the project. But France’s Advanced Sodium Technological Reactor for Industrial Demonstration (ASTRID) program, which the Japanese government is counting on for its fast reactor project, is itself facing an unclear future. The French government is expected to decide in 2019 on whether to build the fast demonstration reactor.

The Japanese government is not even bothering to set up a proper forum for discussions on the new project.

The Nov. 30 meeting was attended by the industry minister, the science and technology minister, representatives of the Federation of Electric Power Companies, which is the power industry lobby, executives of Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd., which makes nuclear reactors, and officials of the Japan Atomic Energy Agency, the operator of Monju. They are all parties involved in the Monju program.

The two officials of Japan Atomic Energy Agency who were present at the meeting are a former Mitsubishi Heavy Industries executive and a former science and technology official.

In other words, the decision-making process concerning the project is totally controlled by the interests of the government and the nuclear power industry.

Why is the government so fixated on developing fast reactor technology?

Monju has long been cast as the linchpin of a nuclear fuel recycling program in which plutonium extracted from reprocessed spent nuclear fuel is burned in a fast-breeder reactor.

Now that it has decided to decommission Monju, the government is apparently concerned that the lack of the troubled reactor’s successor could cause the entire nuclear fuel recycling program to collapse, undermining its efforts to promote nuclear power generation.

Japan, however, already has a stockpile of 48 tons of plutonium, enough to make 6,000 ordinary nuclear bombs.

With no prospects of practical use of a fast reactor, Japan’s fixation on establishing a nuclear fuel recycling system makes no economic sense and only raises suspicions in the international community.

The government has been roundly criticized for its obstinate adherence to nuclear power policy decisions made in the past.

But the disaster that occurred in 2011 at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant has led to broad public recognition of the importance of impartial debate on related issues not influenced by special interests or past developments.

Now, however, the government is ignoring the lessons learned from the nuclear disaster. It is seeking to make the decision in collusive meetings to spend a huge amount of taxpayer money on the highly questionable fast reactor project. This folly cannot be acceptable by any means.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Dec. 1

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