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Monju scrapping would mean disposing of 760 tons of radioactive sodium, MOX fuel



About 760 tons of radioactive sodium remain in the piping and other equipment of the trouble-prone Monju prototype fast-breeder nuclear reactor, which may be ordered decommissioned, Jiji Press learned Sunday.

It has not been decided how to dispose of the radioactive sodium, said sources at the Japan Atomic Energy Agency, the operator of Monju. If the government decides to scrap the reactor, sodium disposal is expected to be a difficult challenge.

Sodium is used as a coolant at Monju, while water is used at conventional nuclear reactors. Sodium is a tricky chemical element that burns intensely if it comes into contact with air or water.

According to the agency, the Monju reactor has some 1,670 tons of sodium. Radioactive substances are contained in 760 tons of the total as it circulates inside the reactor vessel.

The Monju reactor needs to be drained of the sodium if it is to be demolished.

Radioactive and chemically active sodium has to be sealed in containers. There is no precedent of radioactive sodium disposal in Japan.

We plan to consider the method of disposal if a decision is made to decommission it (Monju),” an official said.

Monju, located in Tsuruga, Fukui Prefecture, is a core facility in Japan’s nuclear fuel cycle policy as the reactor produces more plutonium than it consumes.

More than ¥1 trillion, mostly from state budgets, has been invested in Monju. But the 280,000-kw reactor has operated for only 250 days since it reached criticality, a self-sustained nuclear fission chain reaction, for the first time in April 1994, due to a raft of problems, including maintenance flaws, a sodium leak and fire and attempted coverup.

In November 2015, the Nuclear Regulation Authority advised the government to replace the operator of Monju. The government is carrying out a thorough review of the Monju project, including the possibility of decommissioning the reactor.

The disposal of mixed-oxide, or MOX, fuel used at Monju is another significant issue. The amount of MOX fuel, a blend of uranium and plutonium recycled from spent nuclear fuel, that needs to be disposed of is estimated at 21 tons, but Japan is not equipped to carry out disposal.

One option is to consign the disposal to a foreign country and receive the return of uranium and plutonium after the processing, along with radioactive waste.

But the agency’s cost estimate of ¥300 billion for decommissioning Monju does not include the expense of the overseas entrustment of MOX fuel disposal.

The agency aims to entrust France with the disposal of some 64 tons of MOX fuel that has been used at its Fugen advanced converter reactor, but no contract has been concluded. The Fugen reactor, also in Tsuruga, is slated to be decommissioned.

Spent MOX fuel contains larger amounts of highly toxic radioactive substances than spent uranium from conventional reactors.

The disposal of radioactive sodium and MOX fuel at Monju is emerging as additional difficult challenges for the government at a time when the final disposal site has not been decided for high-level radioactive waste from nuclear plants across Japan.


November 7, 2016 Posted by | Japan | , | Leave a comment

Japan’s renewed nuclear fuel recycling dream faces obstacles

After finally acknowledging the failure of its fast-breeder reactor, Japan plans to continue pursuing nuclear fuel recycling in a French project, but this program also faces an unclear future.



Jean-Marie Carrere, manager of the Advanced Sodium Technological Reactor for Industrial Demonstration (ASTRID) program, said the French Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission (CEA) will decide in 2019 on whether to build the fast demonstration reactor.

The decision, he said, will be based on the results of 1 billion euros (about 115 billion yen) in research and development.

Carrere told Japanese reporters in Marcoule, southern France, on Oct. 14 that the CEA has no intention to scrap the ASTRID project, and that it was looking forward to Japan’s financial contributions.

But he did suggest the ASTRID project would require many changes following Japan’s decision to decommission the Monju prototype fast-breeder reactor in Fukui Prefecture.

The CEA, lacking a fast reactor in operation in France, had planned to conduct some of its fuel-burning experiments at Monju.

Carrere indicated the CEA could possibly seek a partnership with Russia, which has a fast reactor the size of Monju.

The money-losing, problem-plagued Monju reactor was one of the pillars of Japan’s efforts to create a nuclear fuel recycling program. The plan was to reprocess spent nuclear fuel to extract plutonium, which would be burned in nuclear reactors.

Fast-breeder reactors, such as Monju, are supposed to produce more plutonium than they burn.

According to Carrere, the concept for ASTRID has been completed, and it is now in its preliminary design phase. If the decision is made to build the reactor, the goal would be to put it into operation around 2030, he said.

The fast reactor is expected to generate 600 megawatts of electricity.

Relevant Cabinet members have discussed Japan’s direction in this field in a “committee for fast reactor development.”

Some expect joint research in the ASTRID project would allow Japan to keep alive its fast reactor research and maintain its nuclear fuel recycling policy, even if Monju is scrapped.

However, a senior science ministry official said in September that Japan could end up serving as a cash cow for the French project.


November 4, 2016 Posted by | Japan | , , | Leave a comment

How does the Monju fast-breeder nuclear reactor work?

Monju plant in Tsuruga, Fukui Prefecture.jpg



The Japanese government is moving toward decommissioning the Monju prototype fast-breeder nuclear reactor in Tsuruga, Fukui Prefecture. The Mainichi answers common questions readers may have about what kind of reactor Monju is, and the state of international research on other fast-breeder reactors.

Question: The Monju reactor is supposedly a power generating device, but how does it work?

Answer: The reactor uses one of three high-speed neutrons that are released when plutonium-239 undergoes nuclear fission, causing more plutonium-239 to undergo nuclear fission and creating heat. The other two neutrons are collided with uranium-238 — which is not usable by normal nuclear reactors — to create more plutonium-239. The reactor is called a “fast-breeder” because it uses “fast” neutrons to “breed” more nuclear fuel.

Q: What were the original research objectives at Monju?

A: Generally, the development process of fast-breeder reactors is to create an experimental reactor followed by a prototype reactor, a testing reactor and then a practical-use reactor. Monju is at the second of these stages. Its research objectives included improving nuclear safety and reducing nuclear waste.

Q: What are other countries’ fast-breeder reactor programs like?

A: There are few countries that are actively involved in this kind of research. One example is Russia, which has been running its prototype reactor “BN-600” since 1980 and in 2015 it began power production at a testing reactor called “BN-800.” Russia aims to have a practical-use reactor by around 2030. Meanwhile, since 2011, China has been generating power at its testing reactor “CEFR,” and it is also aiming for a practical-use reactor by around 2030. India also planned to start a prototype reactor this year, but its plan has fallen behind schedule.

Q: What about in developed countries?

A: France is planning to begin running a reactor called ASTRID around the year 2030. However, rather than producing nuclear fuel, this reactor is primarily aimed at shortening the radioactive life of nuclear waste products, recovering resources and otherwise dealing with the issue of nuclear waste. France is aiming for commercial operation of the reactor in the 2040s.

On the other hand, the United States, after putting its prototype reactor development plans on indefinite hold in 1977 due to concerns about costs and nuclear proliferation, canceled its fast-breeder reactor plans. In 1991, Germany canceled its construction of a prototype reactor, partially due to financial difficulties. In 1994, the United Kingdom shut down its prototype reactor as well.

Fast-breeder reactors use sodium for cooling, which reacts violently when exposed to water or air, making it difficult to handle, and accidents have occurred. Another point against fast-breeder reactors is that for the time being there is little concern that uranium used for fuel at nuclear plants will run out, reducing the need for creating more nuclear fuel. (Answers by Shuichi Abe, Science & Environment News Department)


September 25, 2016 Posted by | Japan | , , | Leave a comment

Japan to scrap troubled ¥1 trillion Monju fast-breeder reactor

Monju plant in Tsuruga, Fukui Prefecture.jpg

The Monju plant in Tsuruga, Fukui Prefecture, is seen in this file photo from January. Its scrapping will leave a massive plutonium stockpile that cannot be reduced quickly

The government decided to cut its losses Wednesday on the ¥1 trillion Monju fast-breeder reactor, pulling the plug on the project after years of mishaps, cover-ups and waste.

At an extraordinary meeting, the Cabinet decided to decommission the idle facility in Fukui Prefecture but reaffirmed a national commitment to obtaining a nuclear fuel cycle.

At the end of the Cabinet meeting, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said the government will set up an expert panel on fast-breeder reactor issues that will “carry out an overall revision of the Monju project, including its decommissioning” by the end of this year.

Fast-breeder reactors like Monju are designed to produce more plutonium than they consume. The government has long envisioned them as playing a role in the nation’s nuclear profile.

During the same meeting, the government also pledged to draw up a road map of developing “demonstration fast reactors” by the end of the year.

A demonstration reactor is more advanced than a prototype reactor like Monju. Specifically, Japan is considering participating in France’s project to develop a fast-breeder reactor of the demonstration type, documents submitted to the meeting by industry minister Hiroshige Seko showed.

But given the record of Monju’s serious accidents and mismanagement scandals, Seko’s pledge to go to the next development stage — with little public explanation on the failure of the Monju project itself — is likely to draw strong criticism from the public.

Monju dates back to 1980, when work began amid the realization of a need to reduce reliance on fossil fuel. Almost all oil, coal and gas burned in Japan is imported.

Monju not only absorbed fistfuls of taxpayer money, but also suffered repeated accidents and mismanagement while only going live for a few months during its three-decade existence.

The Monju reactor reached criticality for the first time in 1994 but was forced to shut down in December 1995 after a leak of sodium coolant and fire. There was a subsequent attempt at a cover-up.

In November 2012, it emerged that the operator, Japan Atomic Energy Agency, had failed to check as many as 10,000 of Monju’s components, as safety rules require.

In November last year, the Nuclear Regulation Authority declared that the government-affiliated JAEA was “not qualified as an entity to safely operate” Monju.

It told the government either to find an alternative operator or scrap the project. The government was unable to find new management.

On Wednesday after the Cabinet meeting, education minister Hirokazu Matsuno said investments of another ¥500 billion would be needed if the Monju reactor were to be maintained.

And it is also true we have yet to find an (alternative) entity to run Monju,” he noted.

Later the same day during a briefing for reporters, government bureaucrats emphasized that the government has yet to draw any conclusion on the fate of the Monju reactor.

But the comments of Suga and Matsuno were widely interpreted as signaling that the Cabinet is willing to eventually mothball the Monju reactor.

Meanwhile, decommissioning Monju will raise international concerns over Japan’s massive plutonium stockpile, extracted from spent fuel at the nation’s dozens of conventional nuclear power plants.

The stockpile is estimated at 48 tons of plutonium, enough to produce thousands of atomic bombs.

With no way to consume plutonium directly, the government plans to continue using MOX fuels — a mix of plutonium and uranium — in conventional nuclear reactors.

But most commercial reactors remain idle in the wake of the 2011 Fukushima nuclear crisis, and for now the rate of consumption will be slow. The No. 3 reactor of the Ikata nuclear power plant in Ehime Prefecture is currently the sole active unit that uses MOX fuel.

The Cabinet of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe hopes to reactivate more reactors once the NRA completes its safety checks.

Meanwhile, the matter remains a divisive one between government ministries.

The education and science ministry, which oversees the Monju project, reportedly opposes scrapping the reactor, arguing its importance in setting up a nuclear fuel cycle and tackling the plutonium oversupply.

But the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, which oversees national nuclear policy, reportedly backs Monju’s scrapping as officials fear its tainted reputation could fuel opposition to nuclear power.

At the same time, METI wants to keep the fuel cycle policy afloat. It has reportedly argued for Japan’s participation in France’s ASTRID project to develop a demonstration fast-breeder reactor. ASTRID, or Advanced Sodium Technological Reactor for Industrial Demonstration, will use more advanced technologies than those on which Monju was based. But the project is still in the designing phase, which will continue at least until the end of 2019.

Sodium coolant used for fast-breeder reactors can catch fire easily and is very difficult to handle, which is why no countries have developed such a reactor yet.

September 23, 2016 Posted by | Japan | , , | Leave a comment

Monju fast-breeder reactor operator insiders say project is a failure: survey


The Monju prototype fast-breeder nuclear reactor in Tsuruga, Fukui Prefecture, is pictured in this file photo taken from a Mainichi helicopter on Oct. 7, 2015

Employees of the operator of the troubled Monju prototype fast-breeder nuclear reactor in Tsuruga, Fukui Prefecture, which the government may decommission, say that the reactor is a failure or criticize the project in other ways, according to a labor union survey.

A survey conducted by one of the labor unions representing workers at the Japan Atomic Energy Agency (JAEA), the results of which the Mainichi Shimbun has obtained, shows that over half of the respondents said the government should consider decommissioning the trouble-plagued reactor.

The JAEA was founded in 2005 through a merger between the Japan Nuclear Cycle Development Institute (JNC) and the Power Reactor and Nuclear Fuel Development Corp. (PNC). There are two labor unions within the JAEA — the Japan Atomic Energy Labor Union (JAELU) comprised mainly of those who worked at PNC and Genken Roso mainly representing those employed by JNC.

Genken Roso conducted the latest survey on all 234 members between December last year and January this year after the Nuclear Regulation Authority advised the Minister of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology last November to consider replacing JAEA with another body as the operator of the Monju reactor. Of its members, 71 responded. The respondents do not include workers at Monju since the union does not have a branch in Tsuruga.

JAEA employs some 3,130 workers across the country, of whom about 380 work at the Tsuruga business headquarters that supervises Monju.

According to the results of the survey obtained by the Mainichi Shimbun, some respondents wrote critical views in the survey’s section in which they were asked to freely express their opinions on Monju.

“It’s questionable to continue to use a massive amount of money for the reactor,” one of them said.

“Monju is a failure. The reactor should be shut down after reviewing the project,” another wrote.

“Fast-breeder reactors require extremely difficult technology, and it’s difficult to commercialize such a project,” a further respondent said.

One other employee insisted that the project should be split from the JAEA.

When asked about the future of Monju, 57.7 percent said the government should consider decommissioning the reactor while only 8.5 percent said the project should be continued under the supervision of the JAEA.

Moreover, 71.8 percent replied that they do not think the JAEA has become an organization that has never betrayed the trust of the public as a result of reforms following revelations in 2012 that the group omitted check-ups on about 10,000 items in the Monju reactor.

An official of the Genken Roso union said, “Since the response rate is low, the outcome doesn’t represent the opinions of all members.”

However, Fumiya Tanabe, who previously served as a senior researcher at the JAEA, pointed out that the results of the survey shows the true opinions of employees.

“The outcome shows workers’ real feelings. They are also probably dissatisfied with the current situation of the organization, in which an annual 20 billion yen in taxpayers’ money is injected into the idled Monju while sufficient funds can’t be spent on other research projects,” said Tanabe.

The JAELU’s Tsuruga branch, which has 240 members, has conducted a similar survey but has withheld its results.

Commenting on the outcome of the Genken Roso survey, a JAELU official said, “Employees’ enthusiasm to work hard for the future of Japan remains unchanged.”

September 20, 2016 Posted by | Japan | , | Leave a comment

LDP policy chief calls for decommissioning of Monju reactor


Toshimitsu Motegi, chairman of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s Policy Research Council, on Friday called for decommissioning the Monju prototype fast-breeder nuclear reactor in central Japan as a cost-effective step for the troubled facility.

In an interview, Motegi said that he cannot think of any option other than decommissioning for the reactor in Tsuruga in Fukui Prefecture, which is operated by the Japan Atomic Energy Agency.

Now is the time to make a decision,” Motegi said.

The Monju reactor, which reached criticality for the first time in 1994, has been in operation only for 250 days so far, while more than ¥1 trillion has been spent on the reactor, a core facility for Japan’s nuclear fuel cycle policy.

He also cited a failure to find a new operator of the reactor to replace the JAEA, though the Nuclear Regulation Authority urged the education and science minister to take such a step in November last year.

The JAEA is effectively banned from restarting the reactor following a series of problems, including its failure to conduct maintenance checks properly.

Motegi said hundreds of billions of yen more would be necessary for the reactor to meet the current stricter reactor safety standards for restart.

Also in the interview, Motegi said that the LDP will start discussions Tuesday on whether to extend the maximum term of office for the LDP president.

The LDP will revise its rules at a party convention next year if it reaches a conclusion on the issue by year-end at its headquarters for political system reforms, he said.

The LDP currently sets the maximum term of its president at two consecutive three-year terms. Some party members have called for allowing Abe to serve another three years to allow him to remain prime minister when Tokyo hosts the 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games.

September 18, 2016 Posted by | Japan | , , | Leave a comment

Monju and the nuclear fuel cycle

fast breeder reactor monju npp.jpg


Media reports that the government is finally weighing whether to pull the plug on the Monju fast-breeder reactor in Tsuruga, Fukui Prefecture, due to the massive cost needed to restart the long-dormant facility, should come as no surprise. Once touted as a “dream reactor” for an energy-scarce country that produces more plutonium than it consumes as fuel, Monju has been a nightmare for national nuclear power policy for the past two decades. The sole prototype reactor for this kind of technology has been in operation a mere 250 days since it first reached criticality in 1994. It has mostly been offline since a 1995 sodium coolant leak and fire. Its government-backed operator has been declared unfit by nuclear power regulators to run the trouble-prone reactor, and the education and science ministry, in charge of the project, has not been able to find a viable solution.

More than ¥1 trillion in taxpayer money has so far been spent on Monju, and maintenance alone costs ¥20 billion a year. Restarting the reactor under the Nuclear Regulation Authority’s new safety standards would cost another several hundred billion yen, including the expense of replacing its long-unused fuel as well as its aging components — though there would still be no guarantee that it would complete its mission of commercializing fast-breeder reactor technology.

The Abe administration may think that writing off the ill-fated costly project, even with the projected ¥300 billion cost of decommissioning the facility over 30 years, will help win more public support for its policy of seeking to reactivate the nation’s conventional reactors — most of which remain idled in the wake of the 2011 meltdowns at Tokyo Electric Power’s Fukushima No. 1 plant — once they’ve cleared the NRA screening. Public concerns over the safety of nuclear energy remain strong after the Fukushima disaster, with media surveys showing a large portion of respondents still opposed putting the idled reactors back online.

If it is going to decide to decommission the Monju reactor, however, the government should also rethink its pursuit of the nuclear fuel cycle — in which spent fuel from nuclear power plants is reprocessed to extract plutonium for reuse as fuel. Monju, which runs on plutonium-uranium mixed oxide (MOX) fuel, has been a core component of the program. As Monju remained dormant for more than 20 years, the government and power companies have shifted the focus of the policy to using MOX fuel at regular nuclear power plants. The No. 3 reactor at Shikoku Electric Power’s Ikata plant in Ehime Prefecture, which resumed operation in August, runs on MOX fuel. The government apparently thinks the Monju program is no longer essential to the policy.

But the nuclear fuel cycle itself has proven elusive, and some say the policy has already collapsed. It is still nowhere in sight when the nuclear fuel reprocessing plant in Rokkasho, Aomori Prefecture — another key component in the program and whose construction began in 1993 — will be ready for operation.

After its scheduled completion in 1997 has been delayed by more than 20 times due to a series of technical glitches and other problems, its construction cost has ballooned three times the original projection to ¥2.2 trillion.

If indeed the Rokkasho facility is completed and starts reprocessing spent fuel from power plants across the country, the Ikata power plant is currently the only one in operation that consumes plutonium-uranium fuel. It’s not clear how many more will be up and running in the years ahead given the slow pace of restarting the idled reactors, and the Rokkasho facility operating without a sufficient number of reactors using MOX fuel would only add to Japan’s stockpile of unused plutonium — which has already hit 48 tons.

If it’s the cost problem that’s finally spelling doom for the Monju project, the government and power companies should also consider the cost-efficiency of the nuclear fuel cycle program, including the extra cost of reprocessing spent fuel into MOX fuel. They should also think about whether the program is compatible with the government’s stated policy — though its commitment may be in doubt — of seeking to reduce Japan’s dependency on nuclear power as an energy source.

Monju has drifted on for years after its future was clearly in doubt. A decision now to terminate the project seems sensible. Such a decision should also prompt the government to stop and consider whether its nuclear fuel cycle still makes sense.

September 5, 2016 Posted by | Japan | , , | Leave a comment

Japan considers scrapping fast-breeder reactor as costs mount

fast breeder reactor monju npp.jpg


The government is considering scrapping the troubled Monju fast-breeder reactor after calculating that readying it for restart would cost several hundred billion yen, sources said Monday.

A political decision on decommissioning the reactor is now in sight, with Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga joining talks to determine its fate, the sources said.

The facility in Fukui Prefecture has been beset by safety problems and has only been operational for a total of 250 days since it first went critical in 1994.

Decommissioning Monju would deal a serious blow to the nation’s vaunted fuel cycle policy, in which the reactor was designed to play a central role. The plan is to develop a commercial fast-breeder reactor that produces more plutonium than it consumes.

The science ministry has been trying to find a new entity to run the reactor, which is currently operated by the government-backed Japan Atomic Energy Agency.

The ministry was ordered to do this by the Nuclear Regulation Authority in November, after the NRA expressed exasperation with the operator’s consistent failure to make the plant a success.

Nuclear safety has been a hot-button issue in Japan in the wake of the disaster in 2011 at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant.

The ministry has been consulting a panel of energy experts on whether to keep Monju alive or to scrap it but has failed to identify a new entity to take over management.

In either case, substantial amounts of money are needed. The agency estimated in 2012 that it would cost around ¥300 billion to scrap the reactor in a process lasting over 30 years.

Safety problems included a major fire caused by a sodium leak in 1995.

The total of 250 operational days has come at a cost of more than ¥1 trillion in building and maintenance costs.

If Monju restarts operations, the ministry says its fuel must be replaced. In the event of a restart, new guidelines for fast-breeder reactors must also be created and any related construction will have to reflect these guidelines.

Making the building’s facilities meet the new guidelines will likely cost nearly ¥100 billion, the sources said, adding there would be further expenses for replacing old equipment.

August 30, 2016 Posted by | Japan | , , | Leave a comment

Japan’s Nuclear Holy Grail Slips Away With Operator Elusive

Japan is missing its own deadline to find a new operator for a prototype nuclear power program that’s failed to succeed in the two decades since it was built, threatening the resource-poor country’s support of a technology other nations have abandoned.

The country’s nuclear regulator demanded in November a replacement for the government-backed Japan Atomic Energy Agency be found within six months for the Monju fast-breeder reactor. Monju, which has functioned for less than a year since its completion more than 20 years ago, now faces the possibility of being scrapped.

The so-called fast-breeder reactor — a cornerstone of its atomic energy strategy dating back to the 1950s — uses spent nuclear fuel from other plants and is designed to produce more atomic fuel that it consumes. The reactor, named after the Buddhist deity of wisdom, has cost the nation more than 1 trillion yen ($9 billion) and has barely operated since it first generated electricity in 1995.

“The potential closure of Monju would be a major blow not just to the fast-breeder community in Japan, but also those supporting reprocessing of spent fuel,” M. V. Ramana, a professor at Princeton University’s Nuclear Futures Laboratory, said by e-mail. “I wonder if the government will allow Monju to be shut down? I would expect that they will simply create a new agency to oversee Monju.”

1950s Strategy

Monju is currently operated by the JAEA, a quasi-government organization that is under the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology. JAEA declined to comment. The nation’s nuclear watchdog, the Nuclear Regulation Authority, didn’t respond to e-mailed questions regarding the status of Monju.

“We don’t have plans to decommission the reactor,” said Hiroki Takaya, director of the ministry’s International Nuclear and Fusion Energy Affairs Division, which oversees Monju. “We are exploring many different options for who will operate the reactor — either a new entity or an existing company.”

The NRA said in November the science ministry must find a new operator or consider closure. The ministry drafted a set of criteria for a new operator, but have yet to name a replacement, it said on May 27. The ministry hopes to find an operator as soon as possible, but hasn’t set a concrete deadline.

“These turn out to be very expensive technologies to build,” Allison MacFarlane, a former chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, said by e-mail. “Many countries have tried over and over. What is truly impressive is that these many governments continue to fund a demonstrably failed technology.”

While Japan’s science ministry seeks a new operator of Monju, no power utility has stepped forward.

“Monju’s reactor design is quite different from a normal reactor, and utilities don’t have the expertise to handle it,” Makoto Yagi, chairman of the Federation of Electric Power Companies of Japan, told reporters in May. “Monju is currently in a research and development phase by the government, it isn’t the matter for a private company.”

June 1, 2016 Posted by | Japan | , | Leave a comment