29 Août 2016
August 29, 2016
The government is considering scrapping the troubled Monju fast-breeder reactor after calculating that readying it for restart would cost several hundred billion yen, sources said Monday.
A political decision on decommissioning the reactor is now in sight, with Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga joining talks to determine its fate, the sources said.
The facility in Fukui Prefecture has been beset by safety problems and has only been operational for a total of 250 days since it first went critical in 1994.
Decommissioning Monju would deal a serious blow to the nation’s vaunted fuel cycle policy, in which the reactor was designed to play a central role. The plan is to develop a commercial fast-breeder reactor that produces more plutonium than it consumes.
The science ministry has been trying to find a new entity to run the reactor, which is currently operated by the government-backed Japan Atomic Energy Agency.
The ministry was ordered to do this by the Nuclear Regulation Authority in November, after the NRA expressed exasperation with the operator’s consistent failure to make the plant a success.
Nuclear safety has been a hot-button issue in Japan in the wake of the disaster in 2011 at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant.
The ministry has been consulting a panel of energy experts on whether to keep Monju alive or to scrap it but has failed to identify a new entity to take over management.
In either case, substantial amounts of money are needed. The agency estimated in 2012 that it would cost around ¥300 billion to scrap the reactor in a process lasting over 30 years.
Safety problems included a major fire caused by a sodium leak in 1995.
The total of 250 operational days has come at a cost of more than ¥1 trillion in building and maintenance costs.
If Monju restarts operations, the ministry says its fuel must be replaced. In the event of a restart, new guidelines for fast-breeder reactors must also be created and any related construction will have to reflect these guidelines.
Making the building’s facilities meet the new guidelines will likely cost nearly ¥100 billion, the sources said, adding there would be further expenses for replacing old equipment.
The government has calculated it will face about 600 billion yen in additional expenditure to keep the trouble-plagued Monju fast-breeder reactor operating in the Fukui Prefecture city of Tsuruga for another 10 years under current plans, it has been learned.
The government has already spent 1.2 trillion yen on the reactor, though the reactor has spent hardly any time in operation and remains idled. A team under Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga is now carefully considering what to do with the reactor, including the possibility of decommissioning it.
The Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) recommended to the Minister of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology in November last year that jurisdiction of the reactor be switched from the Japan Atomic Energy Agency (JAEA) to another organization. It said that if this was not possible, then its operation should be drastically revised, or the reactor be decommissioned. The science ministry had been moving to separate the reactor's operational and management divisions from the agency and place them in the hands of a new corporation.
According to multiple government sources, after the NRA creates new standards for fast-breeder reactors based on lessons learned from the meltdowns at Tokyo Electric Power Co.'s Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant, renovation work to meet these standards will become necessary in order to restart the Monju reactor. In operating the reactor, one quarter of its 198 fuel rods need to be replaced every four months, but the factory in Tokai, Ibaraki Prefecture, that produces Monju's fuel has not yet conformed to the new standards, and needs to be reinforced against earthquakes.
The Cabinet Secretariat has played a central role in considering the cost of operating the reactor. It is estimated that expenditure over a 10-year period, factoring in fuel production costs, power costs and personnel expenses, will reach about 600 billion yen. Even now, with the reactor idled, the annual cost of maintaining it stands at about 20 billion yen.
Some government officials are taking a stern view of the situation. One official voiced opposition to keeping the Monju reactor in service, saying that the amount being spent on it could be used to build a demonstration reactor (the next step after a prototype reactor), and that it is difficult to explain to the public the significance of spending so much.
The JAEA in 2012 calculated that it would cost about 300 billion yen to decommission the reactor, so either way, a large amount of public spending will be required.
Construction of the Monju reactor began in 1985, and it started generating electricity in August 1995, but around three months later it was closed due to a leak of sodium, which is used to cool the reactor. In May 2010 the reactor was reactivated, but 3 1/2 months later an accident with a fuel exchange component caused the reactor to be taken off-line. As a result it has operated and produced power for less than a year.
A science ministry official commented, "There are various preliminary calculations based on the envisaged methods of operation after the reactor is restarted, and we are scrutinizing those. We cannot comment on the cost."