The Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology expert committee tasked with considering the future of the Monju experimental fast-breeder nuclear reactor in Tsuruga, Fukui Prefecture, has put together its report.
The Monju project has been plagued by mishaps and scandals, including serious oversights during inspections. As such, the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) advised the science minister in November last year that the Japan Atomic Energy Agency (JAEA) should "exit" as Monju's managing body.
It must be pointed out, however, that the committee's deliberations were based on the assumption that the Monju project would be continued, and considered only how it would be managed. In the end, nothing about Monju may change except the sign above the door -- exactly the outcome the NRA warned it would not accept.
Does Monju have a valid place in Japan's energy policy? How much will the reactor cost to operate going forward? These questions go straight to the heart of the Monju project, but they have been and continue to be ignored. The government could be looking to keep Monju going uselessly, and this cannot be allowed.
The expert committee report specifies prerequisites for a new reactor operator, including bringing in specialists from the industrial and legal sectors to join its management board. The science ministry will apparently decide on the new operator of the Monju reactor by this summer, and submit it to the NRA.
The report also calls for the appointment of a person with experience running a power plant to a leadership position, and strengthening maintenance and management systems.
However, the Federation of Electric Power Companies of Japan has already stated that none of its members has any intention of taking over Monju's management. The fast-breeder reactor is quite different from commercial reactors, and requires handling volatile sodium coolant. The expert report admits that JAEA is the only organization in Japan with the expertise to deal with sodium coolant, and says that the committee believes the reactor operator will have to be left to a government-related body or specially licensed company.
Put all this together, and it appears that the new Monju operator will include people from outside the nuclear power industry at the top, but leave on-site operation of the plant in the hands of the current staff.
The suggestion to bring in outsiders is a repeat of recommendations for past JAEA reforms, so there's nothing new to see there.
The government has promoted Japan's nuclear fuel cycle policy of extracting plutonium from spent fuel and using this reprocessed fuel again in reactors. The Monju reactor, which burns plutonium, is essential to putting the fuel cycle into effect.
However, the Monju reactor has been shut down almost continuously since a 1995 sodium leak. The national government has invested more than 1 trillion yen in the project so far, and it takes about 20 billion yen a year to keep the plant running. Many other rich industrialized nations have given up on fast-breeder reactor development because of its technical and cost hurdles. The fuel cycle project is effectively broken beyond repair.
Under Japan's basic energy policy, passed by the Cabinet two years ago, Monju had a central role in research and development to solve the country's nuclear waste problem. This R&D can be conducted at other facilities, and there is no reason to prolong Monju's life.
It's time for the government to decide, not on how Monju will continue, but on how it will be shut down for good.