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Time to scrap nuclear fuel cycle (1)

December 22, 2016

Editorial: Time to scrap nuclear fuel cycle, not just Monju reactor




The government formally decided on Dec. 21 to decommission Japan's Monju prototype fast-breeder nuclear reactor, yet will continue to pursue the nuclear fuel cycle in which plutonium is extracted from spent fuel through reprocessing to be used again. This stance by the government takes the existence of fast reactors and the nuclear fuel cycle as a foregone conclusion.

Over 1 trillion yen in public funds has been injected into the Monju project, yet due to recurring trouble and scandals, the reactor has operated for just 250 days over 22 years. The Nuclear Regulation Authority went as far as to point out that Monju's operator, the Japan Atomic Energy Agency, was not capable of running the reactor and should be replaced.

It is only natural for the reactor to be scrapped, but there remains a problem in that the government has closed its eyes to various issues in reaching its decision. Why was it unable to act sooner to put an end to the waste of taxpayers' money and decommission the reactor? Disregarding any probe into such issues, the government went ahead and made its decision behind closed doors. This in no way to win public approval.

An even more fundamental problem is that while the government is set to decommission the Monju reactor, it has decided to proceed with the development of a demonstration fast reactor -- a step up from Monju.

Fast reactors form a cornerstone of the nuclear fuel cycle. The decommissioning of Monju should mean the cycle is broken, and if that is the case, then what needs to be reviewed above all is the fuel cycle policy itself.

The government, however, is still trying to promote fast reactor development, on the grounds that maintenance of the nuclear fuel cycle was included in the nation's basic energy policy that the Cabinet approved in 2014.

As a step in that direction, the government has proposed taking part in France's project to build the Astrid fast demonstration reactor, but the feasibility of this project remains unclear, and the government's move sticks out as a seemingly stop-gap measure.

The reason the government has stuck to maintaining the nuclear fuel cycle is that as soon as it takes down its fuel cycle banner, spent fuel that was previously a "resource" becomes mere "waste." As a result, the Aomori Prefectural Government would probably have to ask power companies to take back the "resources" that have been piling up at the nuclear fuel reprocessing facility in the prefecture. And once the storage pools for spent fuel at the nation's nuclear power plants are full, those plants' reactors will have to be taken offline.

Politicians should be sitting down and working out measures to solve this problem; maintenance of the nuclear fuel cycle should not be used as an expedient.

Some may see officials as wanting to maintain the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel from the viewpoint of potential nuclear deterrence, but this position lacks persuasiveness.

Five years and nine months have now passed since the onset of the disaster at the Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant, and as we prepare to usher in a new year, there are still people living in temporary dwellings and other places to which they evacuated. And the government is trying to widely push the swelling costs of the disaster cleanup, reactor decommissioning, and compensation payments onto the public.

Looking squarely at this reality, fast reactor development is not something the government should be placing priority on tackling. It should give up on the nuclear fuel cycle and put the money to use in measures to assist Fukushima's recovery.


Time for gov't to come clean on Monju reactor muck-up


December 19, 2016 (Mainichi Japan)


On Dec. 19, the central government informed Fukui Prefecture that the Monju fast-breeder reactor would be decommissioned. In its 22-year history, Monju has cost Japanese taxpayers more than a trillion yen, and been in actual operation for a grand total of 250 days.

Nevertheless, on the same day the government broke the news about Monju's impending end to Fukui Gov. Issei Nishikawa, it also decided internally to continue attempts to develop fast-breeder reactor technology, and all without any examination or investigation into why Monju failed in the first place.

Fast-breeder technology holds out the promise of "dream reactors" that produce more fuel than they use. However, its cost and complexity have proven too much for other would-be developers, and Britain, the United States and Germany all abandoned their own fast-breeder efforts in the 1990s. Monju reached criticality in 1994 with high hopes that it would prove the technology's efficacy, and become the "Model T" of fast-breeder reactors.

However, the reactor suffered repeated mishaps including a 1995 sodium leak, and never surpassed 40 percent of its power output capacity. Even so, the government claims that "much technological knowledge was gained (from Monju) that can be put to use for the development of the next test reactor." That is, the government has not admitted that Monju was a failure.

Or to put it another way, no one is willing to take responsibility for the Monju money pit, and Japan's taxpayers have been stuck with the bill.

Meanwhile, the government's committee on fast-breeder development decided unanimously on Dec. 19 to pursue, in cooperation with France and using domestic facilities, the construction of a new experimental reactor. It must be pointed out, however, who sits on this august body. Joining officials from the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology and the Japan Atomic Energy Agency -- who run the Monju project -- are those from two nuclear fuel cycle boosters, the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry and the Federation of Electric Power Companies of Japan. Rounding out the membership is the chief of Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, which makes nuclear reactors.

The proceedings of these committee meetings -- which are, as a rule, "private" and therefore never revealed to the public -- have always been based on the presumption that the problem-plagued nuclear fuel cycle policy (reprocessing spent fuel into MOX mixed-oxide fuel) will continue.

Continuing the fuel cycle and the fast-breeder project is costing Japan enormous sums, and if in the end it fails, the Japanese people may very well end up paying for it. To prevent another Monju muck-up, the government should conduct a very public examination of exactly what went wrong.

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