At a meeting of the Council on Fast Reactor Development on Dec. 19, the government confirmed that it will continue the development of a fast reactor through public-private collaboration and decided to launch a “strategic working group,” which will be tasked with drafting a roadmap on the development. But opinion is divided between the government and the private sector. Utility operators are wary of shouldering development costs. The prospects for commercialization remain to be seen.
The Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry insists on continuing the development of a fast reactor because it finds the project indispensable for a “nuclear fuel cycle,” which is designed to recycle plutonium extracted from spent nuclear fuels used for nuclear power generation. Plutonium can be used in conventional nuclear reactors, but a fast reactor can play a more significant role. In particular, the government has identified a fast-breeder reactor as a key solution to resource-related problems, as it can generate more plutonium than the amount consumed for power generation.
But this vision will rattle once the Monju prototype fast-breeder reactor is decommissioned. The collapse of a nuclear fuel cycle will lead to the eruption of various problems associated with nuclear power development.
Under such circumstances, the Japan Atomic Energy Agency, the operator of the Monju, was branded as a failure and was forced to give a facelift to the development of a fast reactor. This made METI come up with the scenario of mobilizing power utilities and manufactures to ensure the continuation of the development.
But opinion remains apart from the utility industry. Utility firms want the government to be responsible for research and development while the private sector undertakes commercialization. They make this division of roles a precondition for the promotion of a nuclear fuel cycle. The government initially solicited the private sector to become a new operator of the Monju, but the utility industry rejected it.
Meanwhile, reactor manufacturers are having difficulty in gauging their relationships with the government. Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, which the government designated as a “core firm” in the development of a fast-breeder reactor in 2007, spun off a division that oversees the project to overhaul the development team. MHI is willing to cooperate in a national project and continue to recruit new hires. But with the commercialization estimated to take more than 50 years, the project cannot be expected to become a source of revenue for some time. (Abridged)