TOKYO -- Japan appears wedded to its vision for nuclear fuel recycling, despite essentially losing a crucial piece of the puzzle with the likely mothballing of the Monju fast-breeder reactor prototype. The time has come for open debate on the shape of the nation's long-term nuclear energy policy.
The government is expected to decide by year-end to decommission the Monju reactor in Fukui Prefecture, bringing a major turning point for Japan's nuclear power policy. A fast-breeder reactor, which uses recycled nuclear fuel and produces more plutonium than it consumes, was long considered a dream for a country with scant natural resources.
The Japan Atomic Energy Agency, which operates Monju, and the science and technology ministry need to look closely at why the program failed and why a decision to quit was not made earlier, in order to prevent similar mistakes in the future.
Difficult examination needed
The nation will need to re-examine its nuclear fuel recycling program -- the main pillar of Japan's energy policy -- if a fast-breeder reactor cannot be brought online. The recycling would not be economically viable employing just the "pluthermal" program, in which plutonium extracted from spent nuclear fuel is used in conventional reactors.
But Japan cannot simply drop fuel recycling. When the government considered a change to the program in 2012, strong objections came from Aomori Prefecture, which has cooperated over the years. If the program were to end, the prefecture said, Aomori would seek to return the spent nuclear fuel stored at its reprocessing plant in the village of Rokkasho. Spent fuel would begin piling up at nuclear plants across Japan, hindering efforts to restart them.
Such a move also would impact the nuclear power cooperation agreement with the U.S., which allows peaceful use of plutonium by Japan. Having a fuel recycling program is a premise for this pact, which is due for renewal in 2018. This makes the issue political as well as economic.
In any case, it is not right that the Japanese public has to pay the bill for a plan going wrong. The government and electric power industry are responsible for providing a clear outlook on how much taxpayers will have to shoulder to preserve the framework of the recycling program.
The government and power industry gave up efforts once before to commercialize a domestically manufactured reactor differing in type from light water reactors. The Japan Atomic Energy Agency's predecessor quit its advanced thermal reactor project in 1995. High costs were cited back then, just like this time.
But one must wonder: Did abandoning a domestic reactor project weaken the nation's technological prowess in nuclear power? The government's post-Monju strategy involves joint research with France to maintain and improve Japan's technologies, but would that keep the domestic nuclear power industry competitive?
Japan has poured over 1 trillion yen ($9.92 billion) into developing a fast-breeder reactor and has accumulated technical expertise in the field. Terminating that project is a much bigger deal than dropping the advanced thermal reactor project.
If the government intends to maintain its nuclear power technologies over the long term and seriously pursue a fuel recycling program, it needs to devise a new development strategy with a long-term perspective.
A next-generation strategy was never raised in meetings at the science ministry to discuss Monju's fate. If the outlook is murky, then relevant corporations cannot commit to employing personnel in that field. This is why the issue needs to be debated openly, not by the cabinet behind closed doors. The latest policy shift should not be a smokescreen to hide that decommissioning Monju and maintaining the fuel recycling program are incompatible.