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Monju closure should push Japan to rethink nuclear's role

Critical blow to fuel recycling efforts calls for an energy strategy overhaul

TOKYO -- Japan's decision to decommission the Monju prototype fast-breeder nuclear reactor sounds the death knell for the nation's long-held dream of nuclear self-sufficiency -- a sign the country must take a sober look at what role that energy source should continue to play.

Japan has sought to create a fast-breeder reactor, which produces more fuel than it consumes while generating electricity, since the resource-scarce country took its first steps into the nuclear power field. But times have changed. The government seeks to shrink Japan's reliance on nuclear energy following the 2011 meltdowns at Tokyo Electric Power Co. Holdings' Fukushima Daiichi station. That disaster left the public with a deep distrust of nuclear energy, as well as a cleanup bill in excess of 20 trillion yen ($170 billion).

The country's utilities are struggling to bring existing nuclear plants back online, let alone invest in next-generation reactors. Meanwhile, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development reckons world uranium reserves are more than sufficient to meet demand even as nuclear power generation grows in nations such as China, making extending that supply a low priority.

In this light, Japan is right to take Monju out of commission. The decision offers a chance to rebuild the country's nuclear strategy from the ground up.

Be practical

Fast-breeder reactors push the limits of nuclear power technology. But technological advancement serves little use if it drifts too far from economic and social reality. European nations and the U.S. have abandoned attempts to commercialize fast-breeders based on this logic. Japan's development strategy must take a similarly realistic tack.

Nuclear is not the only technology important to Japan's energy security. Renewables such as solar power are viable homegrown energy sources as well, and they are becoming a good deal cheaper.

Creating a sustainable nuclear fuel cycle also becomes much less appealing when fast-breeders are ruled out. This cycle can be achieved by having ordinary reactors run on a mix of salvaged plutonium and uranium. But in that case, simply using fresh uranium fuel would be more economical.

Yet the government has chosen to stick to its goal of closing the fuel cycle. Japan's private sector already has put more than 2 trillion yen into a fuel reprocessing plant in Rokkasho, Aomori Prefecture -- seeing it as too large an investment to abandon now. The plant also is seen boosting Japan's diplomatic standing, as well as preserving technology for future use.

But ordinary Japanese will foot the bill, in the form of higher power costs. They have a right to know exactly why Japan needs a complete fuel cycle, and how high the price of meeting that goal will be.

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