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Gap emerges between gov't, private sector over fast reactor project

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

Prospects of putting fast reactors into use in Japan remain dim in spite of the government's approval of policy to continue their development with the private sector, as the power industry appears hesitant to contribute during the developmental stage.

"We would like to build a system where the government, manufacturers, power companies and research institutions cooperate and share responsibilities in a unified manner, without building walls against each other," Economy, Trade and Industry Minister Hiroshige Seko told the government's Council on Fast Reactor Development at the outset of its Dec. 19 meeting. The committee also agreed to launch a strategic working group to draw up a road map for technology development.

The Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry insists on continuing with the fast reactor project because officials believe that such reactors are essential in nuclear fuel cycle, in which plutonium is extracted from spent nuclear fuel to be reused. While plutonium can be used at regular nuclear plants, its main planned use is in fast reactors -- particularly fast-breeder reactors that can produce more plutonium than they spend to generate power. The development of fast-breeder reactors has therefore been characterized as a trump card to solve resource problems.

If the Monju prototype fast-breeder reactor is decommissioned, however, the government's plan will lose momentum. The collapse of the nuclear fuel cycle will bring issues pertaining to nuclear power development in Japan to the fore. For example, Aomori Prefecture accepts spent nuclear fuel from nuclear power stations across Japan on condition that plutonium extracted from the spent fuel can be reused. Once the nuclear fuel cycle emerges as a failure, such spent fuel is no longer a "resource" but "waste." And if the prefectural government tries to send the waste back to nuclear plants, it could cause major chaos.

Amid such circumstances, the Japan Atomic Energy Agency (JAEA) -- the main administrator of the Monju reactor -- has been declared disqualified from operating the troubled reactor. As a result, pressure has risen for the fast reactor project to be fundamentally reviewed.

The economy ministry came up with a scenario to involve all the interested parties, including power companies and manufacturers, in the development of fast reactors. It seems, however, that the private sector is not as keen. While Satoru Katsuno, chairman of the Federation of Electric Power Companies of Japan (FEPC) and president of Chubu Electric Power Co., told participants at the council meeting that he was ready to actively be involved in the process of clarifying the goals of technology development, an executive from a major utility revealed that electric companies cannot afford to work on the fast reactor project amid growing competition in the power market following deregulation. The official said, "We would rather work on restarting nuclear plants."

Former Tokyo Electric Power Co. executive Takaaki Masumoto, who served as the vice chairman of the FEPC, pointed out that fast reactors are "necessary in the long run" but said, "The power industry had no intention of getting directly involved in the project until the government was able to put the technology into commercial use."

For power companies, promotion of the nuclear fuel cycle hinges on the central government taking responsibility for research and development of the technology, and the private sector being able to operate fast reactors for commercial use. The government had initially tapped the private sector to find a replacement for JAEA as the main operator of the Monju reactor, but power companies refused to take on the role.

Meanwhile, nuclear reactor manufacturers are trying to determine the best relationship with the government. Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd., which was named in 2007 by the government as the core company for the fast-breeder reactor project, reconstructed a development system by spinning off the departments in charge of the project into separate companies. The firm supports the national project and those smaller subsidiaries have continued to hire new employees, but the project is not expected to bring in any profits, as it is believed to take 50 years or longer for technology to become commercially viable.

Those who were involved in the research and development of the Monju reactor are now aged 55 or older, and make up less than 30 percent of the overall staff at Mitsubishi Heavy. As such a shortage of experienced engineers could hinder development of the project, some Mitsubishi Heavy workers are taking part in the ASTRID fast reactor project in France to gain know-how.

A Mitsubishi Heavy official says the company will secure personnel by making an effort to pass technology on to younger generations, hiring new engineers, and conducting in-house transfers, but if the momentum toward fast-breeder reactor development slows down, it could set the government's plans back.

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