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Politics

Fast breeder reactor brings Japan's policy to crossroads

The "dream reactor" has turned out to be little more than a pipe dream so far.

TOKYO -- Japan's nuclear watchdog is invoking its powerful authority to demand changes in the way the trouble-prone Monju fast breeder reactor is managed, a move that could have broad repercussions for the nation's nuclear energy program.

New leadership needed

Specifically, the Nuclear Regulation Authority wants to see the Japan Atomic Energy Agency, which currently runs the Fukui Prefecture facility, replaced. If a suitable candidate cannot be found, the watchdog will seek a fundamental reassessment of the project, with decommissioning on the table. The NRA plans to put the request in writing as early as next week and set a six-month deadline to respond.

     Monju first generated power in 1995 but was shut down that year after a fire. Not only has it rarely come online in the following two decades, but a number of equipment maintenance problems have come to light in recent years. It was discovered soon after the NRA's formation in September 2012 that the JAEA had failed to inspect nearly 10,000 components. Even after the regulator ordered the JAEA in May 2013 to freeze preparations for a restart, more inspection problems cropped up.

     The NRA decided to issue recommendations after concluding that the JAEA could not guarantee the reactor's safety. "We haven't seen acceptable improvement," NRA Chairman Shunichi Tanaka said.

     While the watchdog's recommendations are not legally binding, Hiroshi Hase, minister of science and technology, promised Wednesday that they will receive "serious consideration."

     The ministry's two main options -- setting up a new government-affiliated company to take over Monju or handing the reins to a private-sector company -- both come with issues. A new public company that is no more than a nominal replacement would do little to improve the situation. No research organizations aside from the JAEA have the necessary specialized technical knowledge, and private-sector utilities and nuclear equipment makers are unlikely to seek out the role.

A weighty decision

The cost of the Monju project has ballooned to roughly 1 trillion yen ($8.19 billion), and the reactor eats up about 20 billion yen a year for maintenance. In the private sector, it would likely have been scrapped by now. Its continued existence owes to its position as a keystone of the government's energy policy.

     Monju had been positioned as a key link in the nuclear fuel cycle that is seen as the holy grail for energy-poor Japan. Fast breeder reactors produce plutonium in the process of generating power through nuclear reactions, which Japan hoped would contribute to the stability of its long-term power supply.

     Abandoning development, and thus changing the fuel-cycle policy, would not be easy. Fukui Prefecture Gov. Issei Nishikawa said Wednesday that the Monju project should be reworked so its research can get results, as a matter of national policy.

     Municipalities tied to Japan's nuclear policy feel strongly about their contribution. When the Democratic Party of Japan decided to rethink the fuel-cycle policy during its stint in charge, it met with vocal protest from the village of Rokkasho in Aomori Prefecture, which houses a reprocessing plant for spent nuclear fuel.

     The opinions of the international community cannot be overlooked. Other countries worry that fuel reprocessing, which separates plutonium from nuclear waste, could contribute to proliferation of nuclear weapons. With Japan's efforts to develop light water reactors that can use plutonium faring poorly, giving up on fast breeder reactors could heighten fears regarding the country's plutonium stockpile.

     Changing the fuel-cycle policy would also affect disposal of highly radioactive waste. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said Wednesday that the science and technology ministry should step up and resolve the problem quickly. Monju's fate could affect all of Japan.

(Nikkei)

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