Will Japan continue its participation in a French nuclear reactor development project that has an uncertain prospect of being put to practical use? The matter should be thoroughly studied by the government.
The French nuclear power authority has announced that the development of a fast reactor called ASTRID (Advanced Sodium Technological Reactor for Industrial Demonstration), research on which has been promoted in cooperation with Japan, will be downscaled.
It is said that its output will be reduced from two-thirds to one-third of the capacity of the prototype fast breeder reactor Monju, whose decommissioning was decided by the Japanese government in 2016. The French government also takes a passive stance toward the practical use of fast reactors, saying that there isn’t much urgency in developing them.
It is hard to escape doubts as to whether Japan will be able to obtain satisfactory technological results by cooperating in the fast reactor construction.
The fast reactor is a high-performance reactor capable of efficiently using nuclear materials such as plutonium, which is reprocessed from uranium, in addition to the uranium used by a conventional reactor.
Fast reactors have been regarded as the leading player in the nuclear fuel cycle, in which uranium resources are used effectively. They are expected to play a role in reducing radioactive waste, which has continued to increase.
Japan has developed fast reactors by going through stages of operating the experimental reactor Joyo and then Monju. In view of repeated trouble in the operation of Monju, the post-Monju project is required to be put to practical use.
Japan’s cooperation in the ASTRID project has been led by the Economy, Trade and Industry Ministry. Japan has spent about ¥5 billion annually on such purposes as the basic design of the ASTRID reactor, regarding it as being at the stage of a demonstration reactor, close to a phase of practical utilization.
In hindsight, there is no alternative but to say that the ministry’s outlook was optimistic.
Show solid policy on fuel cycle
It is significant to develop fast reactors through international cooperation, but some people have been skeptical about the feasibility of the French project.
In connection with the construction of a new-type reactor designed in France — other than ASTRID — the project has been delayed significantly due to problems with design and manufacturing flaws. Given the swelling construction costs, the French nuclear and electric power industries have been plunged into serious management difficulties. Such a circumstance could be a factor behind the downscaling of the project.
The Japanese government’s Atomic Energy Commission in April worked out a view that the development of fast reactors should be led by the private sector. Japanese makers and the electric power industry will also be in charge of the cooperation project with France, but this could be too much of a burden on them.
France, for its part, will face difficulties in securing necessary budget appropriations. The Japanese makers and electric power industry have already provided a huge amount of funds to assist the French nuclear power industry. Further financial assistance may be requested in connection with the ASTRID project.
Japan has set as the pillar of its nuclear policy a nuclear fuel cycle in which spent nuclear fuel from nuclear power stations is reprocessed into new fuel. If the fast-reactor project and the nuclear fuel cycle fall through, spent nuclear fuel will have nowhere to go and nuclear reactors will be forced to halt operation.
The ministry is called on to present a solid policy vision of the nuclear fuel cycle.