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Nuclear cash cow Monju now a liability for residents as plant faces ax


The ¥1 trillion Monju plant in Tsuruga, Fukui Prefecture, faces being scrapped after years of mishaps, cover-ups and waste. For decades, residents and businesses enjoyed the cash it brought in but now realize the contaminated debris needs storage.

KYOTO – In February 1983, Mayor Koichi Takagi of Tsuruga, Fukui Prefecture, spoke to residents in the town of Shiga, Ishikawa Prefecture, who were hoping the town would be chosen as the site for a new nuclear power plant.

Tsuruga already hosted two conventional reactors and, just a couple weeks before Takagi’s visit to Shiga, preparations began for the construction of a new fast-breeder reactor called Monju, named after the bodhisattva of wisdom. An old Japanese saying goes: “out of the counsel of three comes the wisdom of Monju,” meaning that, by putting their heads together, even those of ordinary intelligence can think up an idea as good as one from Monju.

Takagi, who also served as head of a nationwide group of mayors whose towns and villages hosted nuclear plants, had some sage advice for his audience. He said nuclear plants were a cash cow and that the media just sensationalized reports of mishaps.

Thirty-three years later, the Monju plant appears heading for the scrap heap. Its history has been one of controversy and scandals, including a 1995 sodium leak and fire, and subsequent cover-up attempt.

Last month, the government decided on an overhaul of the Monju project, looking to decommission the idle facility.

Tsuruga is unhappy that the cash cow, which meant billions of yen to the local economy over the decades, is drying up, while the central government faces questions about the entire future of Japan’s nuclear fuel cycle program.

Monju began as a policy decision made nearly a half century ago in reaction to what was seen as a worldwide problem in the conventional nuclear industry, a scarcity of uranium for conventional nuclear plants.

According to the industry vision of the middle of the 1970s, plutonium-fueled breeder reactors were supposed to replace uranium-fueled light water reactors in order to save what was thought to be scarce natural uranium resources in a world with rapidly expanding nuclear power programs,” said Mycle Schneider, a Canada-based nuclear energy consultant.

The International Atomic Energy Agency then forecasted over 4,000 conventional reactors in the world for the year 2000. In reality, only one-tenth of the plants was built, more uranium resources were identified, and the uranium price plunged.”

Decommissioning Monju is expected to take three decades, once it finally gets under way. But a host of fundamental questions remain about not only Monju but also Japan’s nuclear fuel-recycling program, in which Monju was to have played a critical role.

On a practical level, these questions begin with how much the entire decommissioning process will cost. In 2012, the Science, Education, and Technology Ministry estimated that it would require at least ¥300 billion.

But that estimate does not include how much the central government might have to spend in Tsuruga and Fukui Prefecture over the coming years on various forms of public works projects in exchange for smooth local political cooperation in scrapping Monju. Over ¥1 trillion has already been spent on the plant.

Fukui residents and politicians are sure to raise strong objections if the central government concludes the only viable option for the tons of high-level radioactive waste generated by Monju’s decommissioning process is to store at least part of it within the prefecture.

With three conventional nuclear reactors in the prefecture scheduled to be scrapped by midcentury, Gov. Issei Ishikawa has warned he will not tolerate having Fukui serve as a nuclear garbage dump. He has demanded that waste generated from decommissioning be disposed of outside the prefecture.

Adding Monju to the list of reactors to be decommissioned means seeking further local cooperation. That may only come after guarantees of more central government support, in the form of tax money, to help Fukui bear the burden of the decommissioning.

Meanwhile, question marks are cast over the remainder of Japan’s nuclear fuel recycling program, especially the Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant in Aomori Prefecture. However, experts say it is unlikely to get the ax anytime soon.

Terminating Rokkasho and plutonium policy remains a long way off due to the vested interests and impacts this would have on nuclear power. But the Monju decision is a major step along that path,” said Shaun Burnie, senior nuclear specialist with Greenpeace Germany, who follows Japan’s nuclear power policy closely.

In immediate terms, (Monju’s decommissioning) will not impact the use of MOX fuel in light water reactors. That’s more affected by the lack of operating reactors with Ikata No. 3 being the only MOX-fueled reactor operating; Rokkasho justification will be based on using MOX fuel in LWR’s most particularly at Oma.”

The Oma nuclear power plant in Aomori Prefecture, which is scheduled to start operating in fiscal 2024, will run 100 percent on MOX fuel.

For many in Fukui who have long opposed Monju, there are also concerns about not shutting down the entire nuclear fuel recycling program and suspicions that despite the government’s policy of not possessing, manufacturing or introducing nuclear weapons, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government wants to keep that option open, as a diplomatic tool at least, via the fuel recycling program.

Japan has about 48 tons of plutonium stockpiled domestically and in Europe, and we need to be careful. The plutonium could be converted into nuclear weapons, and we need to make sure it’s not used for this purpose,” said Tetsuen Nakajima, abbot of Myotsu-ji, a Shingon Omuro temple in Wakasa Bay in Fukui Prefecture, and a long-time anti-nuclear activist.

Such suspicions remain because Abe has in the past said he believes the possession of “small” nuclear weapons would not violate the Constitution. Members of his Cabinet, notably Defense Minister Tomomi Inada, who is from Fukui, have also argued previously for a national debate on the matter.

Finally, experts question what the government’s intentions are for a new committee on fast-breeder reactors it plans to form by year-end. The new committee will be centered in the Ministry for Economy, Trade and Industry, and the Education, Science and Technology Ministry, and will include nuclear power-related government agencies and representatives from the utilities and firms in the sector.

Keiji Kobayashi, a former nuclear physics instructor and fast-breeder expert at Kyoto University Research Reactor Institute, is a longtime opponent of Monju. He says Japan might not be done entirely with fast-breeder reactors.

Plans for the committee include clarifying a goal on the development of a demonstration reactor and creating a detailed road (map) to achieving that goal,” he said. “Does that mean another reactor will be built? There are unanswered questions about what will happen to not only Monju but the fast-breeder reactor program in general.”

Kobayashi was referring to the possibility of Japan participating in France’s Advanced Sodium Technological Reactor for Industrial Demonstration (ASTRID) program to develop next generation fast-breeder reactor technology via research at a demonstration reactor for research purposes.

Burnie of Greenpeace Germany says ASTRID is still in the planning stage, over budget and behind schedule, and that the prospects for it being built in France are dim. In addition, while Japan’s METI backs the idea of a demonstration reactor with French cooperation, the education ministry is reportedly more skeptical, noting that France closed its Super Phoenix fast breeder reactor in 1997 after numerous accidents, including, like Monju, sodium leaks.


October 5, 2016 Posted by | Uncategorized | , | Leave a comment

Japan signals end for $10 billion nuclear prototype

“Tokyo believes it would be difficult to gain public support to spend several hundreds of billion yen to upgrade the Monju facility, which has been plagued by accidents, missteps and falsification of documents.”


Japan signalled on Wednesday it would scrap a costly prototype nuclear reactor that has operated for less than a year in more than two decades at a cost of 1 trillion yen (£7.6 billion).

Tokyo believes it would be difficult to gain public support to spend several hundreds of billion yen to upgrade the Monju facility, which has been plagued by accidents, missteps and falsification of documents.

There is also a strong anti-nuclear sentiment in Japan in reaction to the 2011 Fukushima atomic disaster and calls to decommission Monju have been growing in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, with scant results from using around 20 billion yen of pubic money a year for maintenance alone.

Monju was designed to burn plutonium from spent fuel at conventional reactors to create more fuel than it consumes. The process is appealing to a country whose limited resources force it to rely on imports for virtually all its oil and gas needs.

Science Minister Hirokazu Matsuno, Trade Minister Hiroshige Seko and others had decided to shift policy away from developing Monju, a fast-breeder nuclear reactor in the west of the country, the government said.

They had also agreed to keep the nuclear fuel cycle intact and would set up a committee to decide a policy for future fast reactor development by the end of the year.

A formal decision to decommission Monju is likely to be made by the end of the year, government officials said.

The decision would have no impact on Japan’s nuclear recycling policy as Tokyo would continue to co-develop a fast-breeder demonstration reactor that has been proposed in France, while research will continue at another experimental fast-breeder reactor, Joyo, which was a predecessor of Monju.

“The move will not have an impact on nuclear fuel balance or nuclear fuel cycle technology development or Japan’s international cooperation,” Tomoko Murakami, nuclear energy manager at the Institute of Energy Economics, Japan, said.

Before the Fukushima disaster, Japan had planned to build a commercial fast-breeder before 2050, but that may be delayed given the difficulties at Monju, the International Energy Agency said on Wednesday.

October 2, 2016 Posted by | Japan | , | Leave a comment

Ministries spar as Japan focuses on fast reactor project in France


The industry and science ministries were at odds over Japan’s shift toward France for nuclear fuel recycling efforts after Tokyo decided to scrap a “made-in-Japan” pillar of its energy policy.

The industry and science ministries were at odds over Japan’s shift toward France for nuclear fuel recycling efforts after Tokyo decided to scrap a “made-in-Japan” pillar of its energy policy.

Hiroshige Seko, minister of economy, trade and industry, stressed the significance of working with France, a global leader in fast reactor technology, after a Sept. 21 meeting of Cabinet members agreed to terminate the problem-stricken Monju prototype fast-breeder reactor project.

Seko told reporters that his ministry, which is in charge of the nation’ s energy policy, is pinning its hopes on joint research, including France’s ASTRID (Advanced Sodium Technological Reactor for Industrial Demonstration) fast reactor.

ASTRID is a crucial project for both Japan and France,” Seko said. “Japan has already participated in the project and has obtained various insights.”

The Monju fast-breeder reactor and the ASTRID fast reactor use similar technologies but are different.

Monju was designed to use plutonium as fuel for electricity generation and to produce more plutonium in the process.

ASTRID is centered on generating energy by consuming plutonium.

In addition, ASTRID is at a more advanced development stage than Monju.

There are four stages in the development of a nuclear reactor: experimental, prototype, demonstration and commercial.

ASTRID is in the demonstration stage while Monju is a prototype reactor.

Japan and France are already cooperating in the field of nuclear energy.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe agreed that Japan would cooperate with France on preparations for a fast reactor project when he met with French President Francois Hollande in June 2013.

The two countries also concluded a tie-up in technological development and cooperation for fast reactors, including ASTRID, in May 2014.

Prospects are brighter than Monju, and France is a reliable partner,” said an industry ministry official.

But the science ministry, which has clashed with the industry ministry over the fate of Monju, is skeptical.

It says the France-led project does not necessarily promise success, citing Super-Phenix, France’s demonstrator fast-breeder reactor that was forced to shut down after a series of accidents, including a sodium leak, like Monju.

The science ministry has oversight in the first two stages of reactor development, while the industry ministry takes over for the two more advanced stages.

ASTRID is expected to go into operation in the 2030s, but the science ministry said that schedule could face delays.

Sources familiar with the project also say ASTRID will likely cost more than initially expected.

Japan could end up serving as a cash cow,” a senior science ministry official said.

However, the industry ministry is not budging on its stance.

What matters is that Japan keeps alive its research on a fast reactor,” a high-ranking ministry official said. “Japan should not dwell on a home-grown project.”

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

40-year-old Shikoku reactor to be sixth unit scrapped under stricter safety regimen

MATSUYAMA, EHIME PREF. – Shikoku Electric Power Co. on Tuesday ended operation of a nearly 40-year old nuclear reactor in western Japan, making it the sixth unit to be scrapped under stricter safety regulations introduced after the 2011 Fukushima disaster started.

The utility decided in March to decommission the idled reactor 1 at its Ikata nuclear complex in Ehime Prefecture, as it would be too costly to reboot the aging reactor.

The company estimates more than ¥170 billion ($1.59 billion) would be needed to beef up safety measures for restarting the reactor, which started operation in 1977.

It is expected to take about 30 years to complete the decommissioning of the reactor at a total cost of ¥40 billion, according to Shikoku Electric.

The company is banking on technology cooperation that it agreed on with three other regional utilities last month to cut decommissioning costs.

The tougher safety rules prohibit the operation of nuclear reactors beyond 40 years in principle. But operation for an additional 20 years is possible if operators make safety upgrades and pass the regulator’s screening.

The government is looking to reactivate more reactors to meet a goal of generating at least 20 percent of Japan’s overall electricity with nuclear power generation by 2030.

The shutdown of the Ikata reactor 1 reduced the number of commercial reactors in Japan to 42, of which four have been restarted under the post-Fukushima safety rules. But two of the four were shut down earlier this year following a court decision banning them from resuming operations.

With new reactor construction difficult amid public concern over the safety of nuclear power, the country would need a dozen of the aging reactors to operate beyond the 40-year limit to accomplish the government goal, industry observers say.

Shikoku Electric has said it would not make economic sense to restart the unit 1 given the cost and the fact that it has a relatively small output capacity of 566,000 kw, while the company aims to reboot the larger and newer reactor 3 at the same power plant.

The town of Ikata expects the scrapping of the aging reactor to reduce state subsidies that it receives for hosting the nuclear complex by ¥300 million to ¥400 million to around ¥1 billion.

May 11, 2016 Posted by | Japan | , | Leave a comment