The industry and science ministries were at odds over Japan’s shift toward France for nuclear fuel recycling efforts after Tokyo decided to scrap a “made-in-Japan” pillar of its energy policy.
Hiroshige Seko, minister of economy, trade and industry, stressed the significance of working with France, a global leader in fast reactor technology, after a Sept. 21 meeting of Cabinet members agreed to terminate the problem-stricken Monju prototype fast-breeder reactor project.
Seko told reporters that his ministry, which is in charge of the nation’ s energy policy, is pinning its hopes on joint research, including France’s ASTRID (Advanced Sodium Technological Reactor for Industrial Demonstration) fast reactor.
“ASTRID is a crucial project for both Japan and France,” Seko said. “Japan has already participated in the project and has obtained various insights.”
The Monju fast-breeder reactor and the ASTRID fast reactor use similar technologies but are different.
Monju was designed to use plutonium as fuel for electricity generation and to produce more plutonium in the process.
ASTRID is centered on generating energy by consuming plutonium.
In addition, ASTRID is at a more advanced development stage than Monju.
There are four stages in the development of a nuclear reactor: experimental, prototype, demonstration and commercial.
ASTRID is in the demonstration stage while Monju is a prototype reactor.
Japan and France are already cooperating in the field of nuclear energy.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe agreed that Japan would cooperate with France on preparations for a fast reactor project when he met with French President Francois Hollande in June 2013.
The two countries also concluded a tie-up in technological development and cooperation for fast reactors, including ASTRID, in May 2014.
“Prospects are brighter than Monju, and France is a reliable partner,” said an industry ministry official.
But the science ministry, which has clashed with the industry ministry over the fate of Monju, is skeptical.
It says the France-led project does not necessarily promise success, citing Super-Phenix, France’s demonstrator fast-breeder reactor that was forced to shut down after a series of accidents, including a sodium leak, like Monju.
The science ministry has oversight in the first two stages of reactor development, while the industry ministry takes over for the two more advanced stages.
ASTRID is expected to go into operation in the 2030s, but the science ministry said that schedule could face delays.
Sources familiar with the project also say ASTRID will likely cost more than initially expected.
“Japan could end up serving as a cash cow,” a senior science ministry official said.
However, the industry ministry is not budging on its stance.
“What matters is that Japan keeps alive its research on a fast reactor,” a high-ranking ministry official said. “Japan should not dwell on a home-grown project.”