TOKYO Japan appears wedded to its vision for nuclear fuel recycling, despite 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 nation's long-term nuclear energy policy.
Fast-breeder reactor technology, which uses recycled nuclear fuel and produces more plutonium than it consumes, was long considered the ideal solution for a country with scant natural resources. But by the end of the year, the government is expected to decide to decommission the Monju reactor in western Japan's Fukui Prefecture. The reactor has been plagued by safety issues.
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 the plug was not pulled earlier, to prevent similar mistakes in the future.
If a fast-breeder reactor cannot be brought online, the nation will also have to go a step further and re-examine its nuclear fuel recycling program. This pillar of Japan's energy policy will 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. The government has promised the international community that it will use its plutonium only for peaceful purposes. Holding a large stockpile of the radioactive element, which can be used in nuclear weapons, could lead to second-guessing. Japan has 47.9 tons and counting.
The existence of a fuel recycling program is a premise of the nuclear energy cooperation agreement with the U.S., which allows peaceful use of plutonium by Japan. The pact is due for renewal in 2018.
There would be serious domestic complications as well. When the government considered a change to the program in 2012, Aomori Prefecture voiced strong objections. The prefecture, home to a reprocessing plant in the village of Rokkasho, said it would seek to return the spent fuel that is stored there.
Spent fuel would begin piling up at Japan's nuclear plants, almost all of which remain suspended due to the Fukushima Dai-ichi meltdowns after the March 2011 earthquake. This could make it even more difficult, politically, to restart the plants.
In any case, the government and electric power industry are responsible for clarifying how the framework of the recycling program can be preserved -- and how much of the burden taxpayers will have to shoulder.
PRESERVING EXPERTISE This is not the first time Japan has scrapped a nuclear project: The government and power industry gave up on commercializing a new type of domestically made reactor, different from light water reactors. The Japan Atomic Energy Agency's predecessor halted this advanced thermal reactor project in 1995.
Then, as now, high costs were the justification. But one wonders: Did abandoning the reactor project weaken the nation's technological prowess?
The government's post-Monju strategy involves joint research with France to maintain and improve Japan's technologies. But will this be enough to keep the domestic nuclear power industry competitive?
Japan has poured more than 1 trillion yen ($9.9 billion) into the fast-breeder project and has accumulated technical expertise in the field. Terminating the project would be a much bigger deal than dropping the advanced thermal reactor.
If the government intends to maintain its nuclear power technologies and seriously pursue a fuel recycling program, it needs to devise a new development strategy with a long-term perspective. A true next-generation strategy was not raised in the science ministry's meetings on Monju's fate. As long as the outlook is murky, companies cannot commit resources to the field.
This is why the issue needs to be debated openly, not by the cabinet behind closed doors. The government should not use a policy smoke screen to hide that decommissioning Monju and maintaining a fuel recycling program are incompatible.