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Monju will be decommissioned

September 22, 2016

Japan to put 1-trillion-yen Monju reactor out of its misery






Japan will decommission the Monju prototype fast-breeder reactor, a “dream” project that was supposed to help resolve the nuclear waste problem but has only burned money and caused nightmares for safety inspectors.

However, the government will stick with its nuclear fuel recycling efforts, including possible joint research with France on a “fast reactor” centered on consuming plutonium.

A formal decision to abandon the fast-breeder project is expected after talks with officials in Tsuruga, Fukui Prefecture, host of the Monju reactor, and in the Fukui prefectural government.

Cabinet members involved in nuclear power-related matters, including Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, Hirokazu Matsuno, science and technology minister, who oversees the Monju project, and Hiroshige Seko, industry minister in charge of the nation’s energy policy, agreed on Sept. 21 to unplug the Monju reactor.

“We will make a radical review, including decommissioning, of Monju by year-end,” Suga said at the meeting.

Monju was seen as a pillar of Japan’s nuclear fuel recycling program because it is designed to burn plutonium retrieved from huge stockpiles of spent fuel produced at nuclear power plants. Fast-breeder reactors are also supposed to produce more plutonium than they burn while generating power.

But Monju has operated on only 250 days over more than two decades because of many accidents, including a sodium coolant leak at the reactor in December 1995.

Still, the government has poured about 1.04 trillion yen ($10.29 billion) into the Monju project through the current fiscal year--588.6 billion yen on construction and 452.4 billion yen on operations and upkeep.

The annual maintenance cost for the prototype reactor is around 20 billion yen.

Upgrading the Monju reactor for the stricter safety standards set after the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster would cost an estimated 800 billion yen.

“It is ant lion pit rather than a swamp,” a senior Finance Ministry official said, describing Monju operations as an inevitable descent toward disaster compared with a possible chance to escape.

The use of sodium as a cooling agent instead of water required extreme caution for operations of the Monju reactor.

But the Japan Atomic Energy Agency, operator of Monju, has been repeatedly warned about its slipshod management.

The Nuclear Regulation Authority, the government’s nuclear watchdog, halted preparations for a resumption of Monju operations in May 2013 after the agency was found in 2012 to have failed to conduct proper safety checks on about 10,000 pieces of equipment.

Even after the agency submitted a reform plan to the NRA, new violations were found during safety inspections of the reactor.

“It could cause another accident,” an NRA commissioner said, referring to the agency and its abysmal track record.

The agency was seen as so inept that the NRA in November 2015 recommended to the science and technology minister that Monju needed a new operator.

However, the ministry could not find a replacement. Few in the nuclear industry came forward to take over the problem-plagued project.

At the Sept. 21 meeting, the Cabinet ministers also agreed to set up a committee that will serve as the control tower of the fast reactor development program.

The committee is expected to comprise the industry minister, operators of nuclear power plants, the science and technology minister, and the Japan Atomic Energy Agency.


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