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Editorial: Japan should torch hopes of fast reactor to recycle nuke fuel

  • October 24, 2016
  • , The Asahi Shimbun , 13:25
  • English Press

The government has formed a “committee for fast reactor development” following its recent decision to review the Monju prototype fast-breeder nuclear reactor in Fukui Prefecture, with an eye toward decommissioning it.


If allowed to proceed like this, the government could only repeat the same mistake even if it were to decide to scrap the Monju reactor, on which more than 1 trillion yen ($9.6 billion) has been spent.


The review should cover the entire nuclear fuel recycling program, of which Monju is a part.


The new expert panel has five members, comprising the industry minister, the science and technology minister, the president of the Japan Atomic Energy Agency, which operates Monju, the chairman of the Federation of Electric Power Companies of Japan, who is also president of Chubu Electric Power Co., and the president of Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd., a nuclear reactor manufacturer.


They are representatives of central players that have promoted nuclear power development, and most of the committee’s meeting was held behind closed doors.


The panel apparently has no plans to conduct a comprehensive review of the Monju program, including determining why it ended in this deadlock and questioning who should be held responsible. It would be farcical for officials to argue that the committee, as its name indicates, will be dedicated to the development of a fast reactor.


The nuclear fuel recycling program aims at reprocessing spent nuclear fuel to extract plutonium, which will be burned in nuclear reactors. A fast-breeder reactor such as Monju, which is supposed to produce more plutonium than they burn, is a core component of that program.

Even though a fast nuclear reactor is not aimed at “breeding” plutonium, it has the same basic structure of a fast-breeder reactor. It would face the same technical challenges that stood in the way of Monju.


Some government officials have made comments suggesting a fast reactor is certain to be realized. There is no prospect, however, for materializing a safe and economically viable fast reactor any time in the near future.


Japan is banking on joining France’s program for building an Advanced Sodium Technological Reactor for Industrial Demonstration if it decides to decommission Monju. But ASTRID still remains in the basic planning stage.


Officials say they will decide whether to build the fast demonstration reactor only on the basis of the outcome of research and development, on which more than 110 billion yen will be spent through 2019.


Even if a decision is made to build ASTRID, it is only envisaged to enter into service sometime around 2030.


France is planning to have part of its experiments conducted at Monju and elsewhere. A French government official told a team of Japan National Press Club reporters that the plan would have to be amended if Monju were to be scrapped, adding that he looked forward to Japan’s financial contributions.


Tokyo is apparently touting that everything will be fine with Japan’s nuclear fuel recycling program because of the ASTRID program, which, in fact, is full of uncertainty.


Japan already possesses 48 tons of plutonium, enough to make 6,000 nuclear bombs, at home and abroad, and the country’s urgent task is to reduce that stockpile.


Japan’s ongoing “pluthermal” (plutonium-thermal) power generation method for burning mixed oxide fuel, composed of plutonium blended with uranium, in a conventional nuclear reactor is not likely to consume the huge amount of plutonium in stock.


Given that, the government’s argument that using a fast reactor to recycle nuclear fuel is therefore the only available option is an illusion that ignores reality.


The government should give serious consideration to the fact that the United States and Britain have long abandoned their nuclear fuel recycling programs.

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