(Nikkei: November 5, 2015 – p. 2)
Japan’s Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) has decided to recommend to the Minister of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) that the entity that manages the currently idle Monju fast breeder reactor (FBR) be replaced. The Japan Atomic Energy Agency (JAEA), which currently runs the Fukui Prefecture facility, has serious safety management issues, says the NRA. It is unusual for the NRA to comment not just on safety issues but to also criticize a nuclear facility’s management structure.
In 2012, it was discovered that the JAEA had failed to inspect nearly 10,000 components in Monju. Since August this year, almost 1,400 mistakes were found in the categories for the order of priority for inspection, and some components that in principle should have been given priority in inspection had not been inspected even once.
The NRA has repeatedly asked the JAEA to be thorough in safety management, but no improvements have been made. The harsh recommendation this time comes as no surprise. The government, including MEXT, which oversees Monju, should take the recommendation seriously and review the operational framework, leaving open the option of decommissioning the FBR.
Monju first generated power in 1995. It was considered a “dream reactor” because it uses uranium and produces plutonium. After operating for only four months, however, it was shut down for an extended period after a fire broke out. It was restarted in 2010, but soon thereafter it was shut down again after a machine fell [into the reactor vessel].
To date, the JAEA has taken the approach of reform, asking the chairman of the now-defunct Nuclear Safety Commission of Japan and a person from the private sector to serve as Monju’s director. Mismanagement has continued, however. It can only be concluded that safety awareness is lacking throughout the JAEA.
The JAEA is the largest and only government institution in charge of R&D on atomic power. It likely will not be easy to find another entity to operate Monju. The government should take this opportunity to review its FBR development program from scratch.
In the Basic Energy Plan it compiled last year, the government says that Japan will aim to find commercial uses of FBRs by conducting tests at Monju and will use Monju in research [on technological developments] to reduce the amount of radioactive waste.
Even if plutonium were created by the FBR, there is no plan to use it in regular nuclear power generation. The international community is concerned about Japan having surplus plutonium. Even if practical applications for the plutonium were found, the economic feasibility is unknown.
Japan’s dependence on nuclear power will decline in the future. In light of these changes, it needs to be discussed whether FBRs are truly needed.
Restructuring of the JAEA cannot be avoided. In addition to Monju, the JAEA has important responsibilities, including supporting the decommissioning and decontamination of TEPCO’s Fukushima Daiichi and developing nuclear power professionals over the long term. Radical organizational review of the JAEA is needed so that it can fulfill these duties.