24 Mai 2016
May 23, 2016
An expert council on the Monju fast-breeder reactor program started debate last week on a draft report it will submit to the science and technology ministry.
The panel’s work is a response to the Nuclear Regulation Authority’s recommendation last year that the operator of the troubled experimental reactor in Tsuruga, Fukui Prefecture, should be replaced.
After a series of revelations about omitted safety inspections and other problems, the NRA in November urged science and technology minister Hiroshi Hase to find a new entity to replace the government-backed Japan Atomic Energy Agency as the reactor’s operator.
But the council’s draft report, released on May 20, doesn’t name a candidate for the mission. It only mentions a set of conditions the new operator should fulfill, which are nothing new and all part of conventional wisdom.
It says, for instance, the new operator should have “the ability to develop and implement operation and maintenance plans based on the characteristics of the reactor that is still in the experimental stage.” It also says the new operator should be able to respond appropriately to the interests and needs of society.
The draft report also points to the failure of a series of reforms that have been carried out to save the trouble-plagued program. It offers no reason to believe this time is different and the proposed replacement of the operator will bring about sufficient improvements in the management of the Monju.
The fast-breeder reactor requires as much as 20 billion yen ($182 million) in annual maintenance costs. In addition, there is not even an estimate of the certainly huge costs for necessary safety measures.
All these facts make a compelling case for decommissioning the reactor.
The biggest problem, as some members of the ministry panel have noted, is the lack of serious debate on the cost-effectiveness of the Monju program.
Who needs this program and how strong is the need? How much more money is the government ready to spend to develop and operate the reactor? These and other key questions about whether the program makes economic sense have been left unaddressed.
The Monju is now in a precarious position even in the government’s nuclear energy policy.
The reactor was once touted as the core facility for the government’s plan to establish a nuclear fuel recycling system in which plutonium extracted from spent nuclear fuel is burned in a fast-breeder reactor.
For more than two decades since a sodium coolant leak accident in 1995, however, the Monju has remained mostly idle.
Over the period, the need for a nuclear fuel recycling system has kept diminishing. There are now few people in the private sector calling for the development of a fast-breeder reactor.
When it drew up a research plan using the Monju three years ago, the science and technology ministry had to focus on the topic of nuclear waste disposal rather than fast-breeder reactor technology itself.
Still, the government has refused to pull the plug on the Monju program because it is concerned about possible repercussions on its nuclear fuel recycling policy as a whole.
But this vision is now almost a fantasy. If the government admits this fact, however, the issue of how to dispose of the large amounts of spent nuclear fuel stored at nuclear power plants across the nation will no doubt come under the spotlight.
Continuing the Monju program simply to gloss over this grim reality would be too foolish.
A small experimental reactor is enough and more efficient for use in research in nuclear waste disposal, which is still in a rudimentary stage. The need for such research offers no rationale for keeping the Monju program alive.
--The Asahi Shimbun, May 22