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Monju & the "structure of irresponsibility"

September 22, 2016

EDITORIAL: Scrap not only Monju but also ‘structure of irresponsibility’



In a long overdue move, the central government on Sept. 21 decided to review the Monju prototype fast-breeder nuclear reactor in Fukui Prefecture with an eye toward decommissioning.

Monju has remained mostly offline for more than two decades. Bringing it online would require hundreds of billions of yen more in safety and other measures.

It would be unpardonable to spend huge sums of additional taxpayers’ money on the prototype reactor when calls for early commercialization of the technology is practically nonexistent.

The central government should tackle a mountain of unresolved problems, including providing explanations to host local governments, in steadily moving toward decommissioning Monju.

The 1 trillion yen ($9.9 billion) spent on the Monju program has delivered meager achievements. Officials were too late in deciding to scrap the reactor.

Japan should bid farewell to the “structure of irresponsibility” that allowed the program to drag on.

The government set up a predecessor of the Japan Atomic Energy Commission and the Science and Technology Agency, now part of the education and science ministry, in 1956 to push the development of nuclear energy. In the same year, the government said in its first long-term plan: “A goal will be set for domestic production of breeder-type power reactors, mainly from the viewpoint of effective use of atomic fuel resources.”

A fast-breeder reactor, which would have generated more plutonium than it burns, embodied a technology dreamed of by many nations of the world.

Monju falls in the second stage of the evolution process: from an experimental reactor to a prototype reactor to a demonstration reactor and to the final goal of a commercial reactor.

Construction began in earnest in 1985, and the first criticality was reached in 1994, but sodium coolant leaked in 1995.

Monju’s operator had insisted there would be no sodium leaks, although similar accidents had occurred overseas. It tried to cover up or falsify facts to play down the damage after the leak, thereby losing confidence of society.

In the meantime, a number of other countries successively abandoned development of fast-breeder reactors, as the technological difficulties and the costliness became clearer.

When Monju was brought back online in 2010, its operator appeared to have been given an opportunity to bring forth research results. But a refueling apparatus fell into the reactor vessel soon afterward.

It was also revealed that safety maintenance checks had been skipped for as many as 10,000 pieces of equipment.

Despite the problems, Monju has been kept on “life support” at an annual maintenance cost of about 20 billion yen because outside bodies have failed to fulfill their function of conducting checks on the program.

The Japan Atomic Energy Commission, relevant ministries and agencies, and researchers in the field of nuclear power formed a single community, whereas the national Diet, whose role includes debating budgets, would not touch on the matter.

This time around, the government held a meeting of relevant Cabinet ministers to come up with the decommissioning policy. The decision deserves to be called a step forward if political circles intend to handle the matter responsibly.

But many concerns linger. The government decided to stick with its nuclear fuel recycling program and set up a new council toward developing a new fast reactor in the aftermath of Monju’s decommissioning.

Such a plan runs the risk of following in Monju’s footsteps.

Nuclear power administration should be acceptable to broad layers of the public. Putting Monju’s decommissioning plan into practice and reviewing Japan’s entire nuclear fuel recycling program should be seen as key steps toward that goal.


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