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Time for gov't to come clean on Monju reactor muck-up

The Japan Atomic Energy Agency's Monju fast-breeder reactor is seen in Tsuruga, Fukui Prefecture, from a Mainichi helicopter on Dec. 19, 2016. (Mainichi)

On Dec. 19, the central government informed Fukui Prefecture that the Monju fast-breeder reactor would be decommissioned. In its 22-year history, Monju has cost Japanese taxpayers more than a trillion yen, and been in actual operation for a grand total of 250 days.

Nevertheless, on the same day the government broke the news about Monju's impending end to Fukui Gov. Issei Nishikawa, it also decided internally to continue attempts to develop fast-breeder reactor technology, and all without any examination or investigation into why Monju failed in the first place.

Fast-breeder technology holds out the promise of "dream reactors" that produce more fuel than they use. However, its cost and complexity have proven too much for other would-be developers, and Britain, the United States and Germany all abandoned their own fast-breeder efforts in the 1990s. Monju reached criticality in 1994 with high hopes that it would prove the technology's efficacy, and become the "Model T" of fast-breeder reactors.

However, the reactor suffered repeated mishaps including a 1995 sodium leak, and never surpassed 40 percent of its power output capacity. Even so, the government claims that "much technological knowledge was gained (from Monju) that can be put to use for the development of the next test reactor." That is, the government has not admitted that Monju was a failure.

Or to put it another way, no one is willing to take responsibility for the Monju money pit, and Japan's taxpayers have been stuck with the bill.

Meanwhile, the government's committee on fast-breeder development decided unanimously on Dec. 19 to pursue, in cooperation with France and using domestic facilities, the construction of a new experimental reactor. It must be pointed out, however, who sits on this august body. Joining officials from the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology and the Japan Atomic Energy Agency -- who run the Monju project -- are those from two nuclear fuel cycle boosters, the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry and the Federation of Electric Power Companies of Japan. Rounding out the membership is the chief of Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, which makes nuclear reactors.

The proceedings of these committee meetings -- which are, as a rule, "private" and therefore never revealed to the public -- have always been based on the presumption that the problem-plagued nuclear fuel cycle policy (reprocessing spent fuel into MOX mixed-oxide fuel) will continue.

Continuing the fuel cycle and the fast-breeder project is costing Japan enormous sums, and if in the end it fails, the Japanese people may very well end up paying for it. To prevent another Monju muck-up, the government should conduct a very public examination of exactly what went wrong.

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