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Editorial: Gov't should admit nuclear fuel cycle project has failed

The government has decided to carry out a fundamental review of the fate of the Monju prototype fast-breeder nuclear reactor in Tsuruga, Fukui Prefecture, operated by the Japan Atomic Energy Agency (JAEA), with an eye to eventually decommissioning the troubled reactor. The government will make a final decision on the matter by the end of this year after consulting with concerned local governments.

Over 1 trillion yen in taxpayers' money has been invested in Monju. However, operations at the reactor have almost completely been suspended for more than 20 years because of a series of accidents and other problems. Hundreds of billions of yen would reportedly be needed to restart Monju. Still, there are no prospects that the operation of the reactor would produce any results. It is only natural, therefore, that the government intends to decommission the reactor. At the same time, the government's responsibility for repeatedly delaying a decision on the fate of the trouble-plagued reactor should be seriously called into question.

The government has promoted the nuclear fuel cycle project, in which plutonium extracted from spent nuclear fuel is mixed with uranium to produce mixed oxide fuel, or MOX fuel, to be used at nuclear reactors, as part of national policy. A fast-breeder reactor, which produces more plutonium than that consumed, is the core facility of the nuclear fuel cycle project along with a spent nuclear fuel reprocessing plant.

We cannot help but raise serious questions over a decision that the government made at a recent meeting of Cabinet ministers concerned with nuclear energy policy to continue the nuclear fuel cycle project and research and development of fast reactors, while moving toward decommissioning Monju.

There are numerous challenges to putting the nuclear fuel cycle into practical use from the viewpoints of technology, economic efficiency and security. The completion of a nuclear fuel reprocessing plant, under construction in the Aomori Prefecture village of Rokkasho, has been repeatedly postponed. Doesn't the government's latest decision reflect its true intention to scrap the Monju reactor -- the core facility in the nuclear fuel cycle project -- in a bid to deflect criticism against continuing the already failed project?

The government claims that plutonium extracted from spent nuclear fuel in the cycle project should be regarded as semi-domestically produced energy, and would contribute to energy security. However, continuing the nuclear fuel cycle project means that Japan would remain dependent on atomic power in the country's energy policy.

One of the lessons learned from the Fukushima nuclear crisis is that there are high risks involving a quake-prone country relying on nuclear power. Japan needs to phase out atomic power. The government should take the opportunity to decommission Monju and put an end to the nuclear fuel cycle project.

Monju uses liquid sodium, which is flammable if exposed to air or water, as coolant. Its maintenance requires more advanced technology than conventional reactors that use water as a cooling agent. Monju has hardly been operated since a sodium leak accident in December 1995. Nevertheless, approximately 20 billion yen is spent on maintenance of the reactor each year.

It came to light that JAEA failed to inspect many parts of Monju, prompting the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) to advise the reactor's regulator, the Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry, in November 2015 to replace the JAEA with another body as the operator of the reactor.

In response, the ministry has proposed to set up a new entity to operate Monju with cooperation from the private sector including power companies. However, major utilities have no intention of playing a key role in operating such a body amid intensifying competition in the industry following deregulation of the power market.

Furthermore, the Monju reactor must meet the new regulatory standards, which the NRA set after the outbreak of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, before being restarted. The government estimates that some 580 billion yen would be needed for work to remodel the reactor, such as reinforcement of the facility to make it quake-resistant. A huge amount of additional costs have also fueled calls for scrapping the reactor.

After Monju is shut down, the focus will be on how to consume plutonium extracted by reprocessing spent nuclear fuel. Japan has already stockpiled about 48 metric tons of surplus plutonium both in the country and overseas, including that generated as a result of commissioning British and French entities to reprocess spent nuclear fuel. This is despite the fact that the Japanese government has repeatedly pledged to the international community that it will never possess surplus plutonium to prevent such a substance from being used by terrorists or converted to nuclear weapons.

The Federation of Electric Power Companies of Japan had worked out a plan to use MOX fuel at conventional nuclear power plants and intended to introduce such fuel to 16 to 18 reactors across the country. However, the plan was scrapped after the outbreak of the Fukushima nuclear crisis. Currently, the No. 3 reactor at Shikoku Electric Power Co.'s Ikata plant is the only reactor using MOX fuel, and much of the surplus plutonium has not been used as planned.

The government intends to continue research and development of fast reactors in cooperation with a French organization at ASTRID, a new fast breeder that France is planning to build. However, there is no guarantee that the ASTRID project will progress smoothly.

In fact, the assessment of the nuclear fuel cycle project, which the government's Japan Atomic Energy Commission made following the outbreak of the nuclear disaster, shows it is more economically efficient to directly dispose of spent nuclear fuel than reprocessing such waste.

Japan, despite being a non-nuclear power, can reprocess spent nuclear fuel under the Japan-U.S. agreement on peaceful use of nuclear energy that went into force in 1988. The accord is set for renewal in 2018. It remains to be seen, however, as to how the next U.S. administration, to be launched following the November presidential race, will respond to the issue.

In the meantime, the biggest challenge to reviewing the nuclear fuel cycle project perhaps is how to deal with local bodies that have hosted relevant facilities.

Local governments that host Monju are urging the government to retain the prototype reactor. Aomori Prefecture, where the reprocessing plant is situated, has agreed that spent nuclear fuel would be brought into the facility on the assumption that the nuclear fuel cycle project is promoted. If the project was to be abandoned, Aomori Prefecture could end up being a nuclear waste dump site, but power companies cannot easily take over spent nuclear fuel, either.

The government should exercise wisdom to solve these problems rather than insisting on continuing the nuclear fuel cycle project.

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