During a regular news conference on July 15, Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Minister Yoshiaki Takaki was asked about the future of the government's Monju prototype fast-breeder reactor in Fukui Prefecture. He replied, "Rather than discuss it in simplistic terms of scrapping or keeping it, let's just say the answer lies in the government's overall energy policy."
When his remarks were interpreted to mean that discontinuing the Monju project was an option being considered by the government, a testy Takaki called another news conference later that day. "I never said anything about discontinuing the project," he asserted. "Nobody should be jumping to conclusions."
But given the unprecedented gravity of the March meltdowns and Prime Minister Naoto Kan's recent call for a society that relies less on nuclear energy, it is only reasonable to assume that the government intends to radically review the Monju project.
Fast-breeder reactors (FBRs) are "dream reactors" that run and fast-breed their plutonium fuel using plutonium, thereby maintaining a nuclear fuel cycle.
In the past, many countries sought to perfect this nuclear fuel cycle. But the United States and other European countries have practically given it up for cost and technical reasons, as well as out of concern for nuclear proliferation issues that might arise from the use of plutonium.
Japan's Monju project has experienced repeated delays. In the 1970s, the government expected the FBR to be commercialized "between 1995 and 2005." But according to the current nuclear energy policy guideline, the target is "by around 2050."
Soon after its startup, the Monju leaked its sodium coolant in December 1995. The reactor has remained practically idle ever since, but more than 900 billion yen ($11.37 billion) has been sunk into the project so far. And it costs 55 million yen a day just to maintain it.
Since Monju is a prototype reactor, it is to be followed by a demonstration reactor and then a commercial reactor. But nothing has been decided as to who will be primarily responsible for the construction of the demonstrator reactor, and the latter will be of a different type from the Monju anyway. There are no prospects of commercialization.
In the history of Japan's nuclear development, the Monju symbolized domestic development when all light-water reactors were imports.
Sodium, which the Monju uses as a coolant, is difficult to control because it can cause an explosion when it reacts with water. It is a highly dangerous substance if an accident does occur.
In one of our special editorials that ran on July 13 in the vernacular Asahi Shimbun, we demanded that the government discontinue its nuclear fuel cycle program. There is little point now in continuing to spend billions of yen on the development of FBRs. We believe it is time to abandon the project and decommission the Monju.
Once we are through with FBRs, we should radically review the current system of extraction and reprocessing of spent plutonium fuel.
--The Asahi Shimbun, July 16
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