TOKYO -- Japan will scrap its grand nuclear energy plans centering on the accident-prone Monju fast breeder reactor, a decision that will likely force a reassessment of a fuel cycle program that was supposed to provide an infinite source of energy.
Monju, once touted as a "dream reactor" that generates more fuel than it consumes via nuclear chain reaction, has remained shut down due to a series of troubles. Its enormous upkeep costs, reaching 50 million yen ($490,000) a day, have led to criticism of wasting taxpayer money.
The government will re-evaluate Monju's position in the nation's nuclear cycle program under a new energy plan to be adopted as early as this month. It will no longer be at the core of the nation's nuclear policy. As an alternative, the government plans to use Monju to advance research on reducing nuclear waste. Processing waste with a fast reactor is said to accelerate the decay of radioactive material and slash its volume.
Japan has no final disposal sites for spent nuclear fuel. The government hopes that cutting the amount of waste and the storage time would make municipalities more amenable to building such facilities.
In a plan crafted in 2010, the government envisioned developing demonstrative facilities by around 2025 and having breeder reactors commercially generating power around 2050.
But the plan never took off. A leak of liquid sodium coolant was discovered at Monju in 1995, leading to a shutdown that lasted for nearly 14 years. After a brief restart, a piece of equipment fell into the reactor in August 2010, keeping the facility idle ever since. Systemic information cover-ups and other management lapses have also come to light, prompting the Nuclear Regulation Authority to halt Monju's preparations for a restart in May 2013.
Monju has almost never been in operation in the roughly 20 years since its construction. It is unclear whether the new plan would lead to a restart.
The government's nuclear fuel cycle involves processing spent uranium and plutonium for reuse as fuel for fast-breeder reactors. If the technology cannot get off the ground, the pricey process of extracting plutonium would become pointless, forcing the government to rethink the entire fuel cycle.