To ensure a stable supply of energy, domestic technology must be passed down and further developed. Japan must proactively take part in international projects and make an effort to prevent its technology for nuclear power generation from disappearing.
It has been reported that the Japan Atomic Energy Agency (JAEA) and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, Ltd. will provide technical cooperation on a project to construct a next-generation fast reactor in Wyoming that has been planned by the U.S. Energy Department and U.S. nuclear start-up TerraPower, LLC.
With liquid sodium as a cooling material, fast reactors can use nuclear fuel more efficiently than conventional nuclear power plants. They also produce a smaller amount of high-level radioactive waste during power generation. Fast reactors can be described as a key technology that must be steadily developed for the future.
Japan has been accumulating technology for fast reactors for a long time. Although it was decided in 2016 that the Monju fast reactor would be decommissioned due to a series of problems, the JAEA also operates the Joyo experimental fast reactor and AtheNa, a large-scale sodium experimental facility.
As the United States has kept away from full-scale fast reactor development since the 1970s, the technology and data that Japan has accumulated should be useful in many scenarios.
By participating in the U.S. project, Japan will likely get an opportunity to improve the fast reactor technology it has built up so far and to develop human resources.
Japan has promoted a nuclear fuel cycle policy in which spent nuclear fuel from nuclear power plants is reprocessed to extract plutonium. However, the decision to decommission Monju, a core facility fueled by plutonium, has stalled this cycle, raising questions about the policy.
As a substitute for Monju, Japan planned to join France’s fast reactor project to continue development. However, France has frozen the project mainly for financial reasons, which has made the future of the initiative increasingly uncertain. It is hoped that Japan will be able to find a new way forward through cooperation with the United States.
Although liquid sodium is difficult to handle, as it reacts violently when it comes into contact with water or air, Russia and China have been tenaciously developing fast reactor technology from an energy security perspective.
The United States also aims to lead the world in next-generation technologies such as fast reactors. Cooperation with the United States is necessary for Japan, but if Japan only plays a subordinate role in U.S.-led projects, the nation’s energy policy could be swayed depending on moves by other countries.
With a momentum toward decarbonization, interest is growing worldwide in nuclear power generation, as it does not emit carbon dioxide. However, the government has not clarified its position over whether to build new nuclear reactors.
The government must show its resolve to engage in the development of a wide range of nuclear energy technology, with an eye on building a fast reactor in Japan in the future.
— The original Japanese article appeared in The Yomiuri Shimbun on Jan. 15, 2022.