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Time to scrap nuclear fuel cycle (2)

December 22, 2016

Review the failure of Monju



Just as the government finally makes a belated decision to decommission the trouble-plagued Monju prototype fast-breeder reactor, it is seeking to pursue a successor project in order to keep alive its bid for a nuclear fuel cycle in Japan. What it should be doing first is conducting a thorough examination of why the Monju project ended in failure and holding an open discussion on whether the nuclear fuel cycle — in which Monju’s technology was supposed to serve as a core component — is still a practical and feasible option for this country.

The formal decision to decommission the nation’s sole prototype fast-breeder reactor in Tsuruga, Fukui Prefecture, was long overdue. Billed as a dream nuclear reactor for resource-scarce Japan because it produces more plutonium than it consumes as fuel, Monju first reached criticality in 1994, but it has been mostly offline after it was hit by a sodium coolant leak and fire in December 2015. Its trouble-prone operator was judged by the Nuclear Regulation Authority as unqualified to run the facility, but the government has been unable to build a new viable regime to restart its operation.

Despite the injection of more than ¥1 trillion in taxpayer money, Monju was in operation for a mere 250 days over the past 22 years, and never reached 100 percent of its output capacity. It is estimated that restarting the reactor under the updated safety regulations will take at least eight years — a process that, including acquisition of necessary data that will require an additional eight years, is calculated to cost at least ¥540 billion. The decision to decommission the reactor — which in itself would require at least ¥375 billion over 30 years — was inevitable.

The problem is that the government seems to be moving headlong to the next project for its stalled nuclear fuel cycle policy without carrying out a proper assessment of Monju’s failure — either from scientific viewpoints or policy perspectives. The government plans to compile by 2018 a road map for the domestic development of a demonstration fast reactor, which also consumes plutonium as fuel.

The government has long pursued a nuclear fuel cycle policy — in which spent fuel from nuclear power plants are reprocessed to extract plutonium for reuse as fuel — due to its efficient use of uranium resources. Monju was a facility in the second stage of development (from experimental to prototype, demonstration and commercial) of fast-breeder reactor technology — which was to be the core component of the policy. Still, the government says it will not review its nuclear fuel cycle policy. It intends to promote the use of plutonium-uranium mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel at conventional nuclear power plants — although MOX fuel is much more costly and its use remains low because the restart of nuclear plants idled since the 2011 meltdowns at Tokyo Electric Power’s Fukushima No. 1 plant has been proceeding at a snail’s pace.

What’s puzzling is the plan to pursue the development of a demonstration fast reactor, even after the failure of the Monju project. The government reportedly says that even without restarting Monju, the same level of technological knowledge and data for development of a demonstration reactor can be obtained through a joint project with France to develop an advanced sodium technological reactor for industrial demonstration (ASTRID) and by using the Joyo experimental fast-breeder reactor. Still, ASTRID remains in its design stage, and it is unclear how much of its cost Japan will be sharing. The government has yet to publicly explain how much the development of a demonstration fast reactor will cost and how it plans to pay for it.

A bigger problem is that the plan to move forward on a fast reactor development was formulated in a closed discussion among a small group of people with stakes in nuclear power. The plan was adopted at the Council on Fast Reactor Development, which was set up by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry and includes as members the economy and trade minister, the education and science minister, the head of the Japan Atomic Energy Agency — which operates Monju — the chairman of the Federation of Electric Power Companies of Japan, and the president of Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, a major nuclear power plant maker. It is unacceptable that the future direction of the nation’s policy on nuclear energy and the decision to launch a costly new project are being made by a closed circle of interested parties without public discussions that reflect on Monju’s failure.

The government has yet to give a convincing explanation of why the pursuit of a nuclear fuel cycle is still relevant as it seeks to reduce the nation’s dependency on nuclear power and expand energy supply from renewable sources after the 2011 Fukushima crisis, which made it difficult to proceed with nuclear power generation in the same manner as before. The decision to end the Monju project should serve as a chance for the nation to rethink the policy itself and hold an open discussion on our energy needs and nuclear power.


EDITORIAL: Government still refuses to face up to reality, failure of Monju project



The government officially decided on Dec. 21 to decommission the troubled Monju prototype fast-breeder reactor and instead develop a new fast reactor to maintain Japan’s nuclear fuel recycling program.

The decision can be likened to a theater director determined not to declare an end to production despite dropping the spendthrift leading actor whose scandals have prevented him from performing on stage.

Fearing possible repercussions from the termination of the production, the director keeps promising to stage the play "sometime in the future." The director refuses to say clearly when the play will be staged because there is no actor in sight who can substitute for the dismissed one.

But this policy decision cannot be simply laughed away as an absurd piece of political theatrics. An enormous amount of taxpayer money has already been poured into Monju, and the government is poised to spend a huge additional amount to deal with its demise.

There is no doubt the Monju project has been a costly failure. The government cannot be allowed to put the debacle behind it by simply scrapping the experimental reactor and having the science and technology minister offer to return part of his salary for several months.

Despite an injection of more than 1 trillion yen ($8.5 billion) of public funds into the project, the reactor has been mostly out of operation for the 20-odd years since it first reached criticality in 1994. Decommissioning the reactor will require an additional expenditure of nearly 400 billion yen, according to a government estimate.

An exhaustive postmortem for the project to identify the causes of its failure is in order.

The government should not waste any more money or make unreasonable efforts to keep its nuclear fuel recycling program alive.

The government has made the questionable claim that “a certain amount of useful knowledge” has been acquired through the Monju project that can be used to develop a new fast reactor. Instead, the government should confront the grim reality of this undertaking.

Four years ago, the science and technology ministry submitted a report on technological achievements in the Monju project to the Japan Atomic Energy Commission.

The report included estimated levels of achievements, weighted in terms of importance, in different areas.

The degree of achievement, expressed as a percentage, for equipment and system tests was, for instance, 16 percent. The figure for reactor core tests and irradiation issues was 31 percent, while that for operation and maintenance was nil. The overall achievement level was estimated at 16 percent.

Does the government believe this poor track record justifies its claim that “a certain amount of useful knowledge” has been obtained?

The clear moral of the Monju saga is that a huge price must be paid for failing to take a hard look at the reality and underestimating risks and problems.

Serious concerns about the cost-effectiveness of a nuclear fuel recycling program and the risk of nuclear proliferation from accumulating stockpiles of plutonium led many countries to give up developing fast-breeder reactors. Japan, however, bucked the trend and embarked on building Monju.

When sodium leaks occurred overseas, Japanese proponents insisted that such an accident would not happen at the Monju reactor.

When a sodium leak accident did occur at Monju in 1995, they made false announcements and covered up vital information.

Monju resumed operations in 2010 after a long hiatus, but mechanical trouble soon caused it to be shut down again.

Eventually, the ability and competence of the Monju operator, Japan Atomic Energy Agency, was called into question.

The government’s decision to decommission the reactor has long been delayed apparently because of fears that the step would raise questions about how to reprocess spent nuclear fuel in the recycling process and could have a negative impact on nuclear power generation itself.

The government should take this opportunity to confront the reality of its nuclear fuel recycling policy and try to create a new nuclear power policy that can win support of the public through open and broad debate.

Forging ahead with the plan to develop a fast reactor without following this process would be tantamount to betraying the people.


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