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France halts joint nuclear project in blow to Japan's fuel cycle

Move comes as tensions mount over Renault-Nissan

A fuel rod is inserted into a reactor vessel, right, inside the No.1 reactor building at Kyushu Electric Power's Sendai nuclear power station.   © AP

TOKYO -- The French government has informed Japan it will halt joint development of advanced nuclear reactors, Nikkei has learned, dealing a blow to the fuel cycle policy underpinning much of the East Asian country's energy plans.

France is expected to halt research from next year into the Advanced Sodium Technological Reactor for Industrial Demonstration project, or Astrid, and stop setting budgets for the fast breeder reactors from 2020.

French President Emmanuel Macron revealed plans Tuesday to cut France's nuclear reliance to 50% from the current 70%. Under that plan, the Astrid project, which has faced ballooning construction costs and cutbacks, appears to have been viewed as less urgently needed.

The French government denied it has made an official decision on the matter, according to Reuters. But the consideration comes at a time when tensions between Tokyo and Paris are mounting over the arrest of former Nissan Chairman Carlos Ghosn, and Renault's control over the Japanese automaker. 

Japan viewed Astrid as a keystone of its plans to recycle spent nuclear fuel. The country pulled the plug in 2016 on its own prototype fast breeder reactor. That reactor, known as Monju, encountered a great deal of trouble and incurred heavy costs over its decades-long history.

Nuclear reactors generate power by using nuclear fission reactions to vaporize water and create steam that rotates turbines. Fast breeder reactors can run on so-called mixed-oxide fuel made with plutonium gathered from reprocessing spent nuclear fuel, and are more efficient than light-water reactors, a common variety.

Japan's government is hurrying to ascertain the details of France's revised nuclear plan. In the meantime, it appears to be against giving up on the fuel cycle policy. It is widely expected to keep research alive through government-linked organizations and continue exploring possibilities of realizing fast breeder technology even decades down the road.

Even so, the loss of Astrid is significant. Just a few of Japan's nuclear reactors currently use mixed-oxide fuel, and the country's plutonium stores continue to pile up far faster than it can be consumed -- driving the U.S. to express concern, as the fissile material can be used in nuclear weapons.

The blow to the fuel cycle policy may trigger calls from Japan's government and from opposition parties to revise national energy policy.

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