A pipe dream turned into a nightmare
The following Editorial by Japan’s Asahi Newspaper is about the fate of Monju, a prototype fast-breeder nuclear reactor located in Japan’s Fukui Prefecture, which remains idle for more than 13 years. Monju was shut down after dangerous sodium coolant leaked from its cooling system in December 1995.
There’s a false [often fatal] tendency among the pronuclear lot to assume that the nuclear industry is run by responsible people. According to the following Editorial and other reports, the now-defunct corporation that managed Monju prior to its 1995 leak had falsified reports and systematically concealed important information about the extent and seriousness of the problem.
Japan Atomic Energy Agency (JAEA), which took over Donen’s operations has also been criticized by the IEA and “sharply rebuked” by Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency for their failure to carry out maintenance and do repair work.
The cost of building and maintaing Monju will soon exceed ¥1trillion [about $11.2billion at the current exchange rate.]
The Editorial poses a pertinent question:
Is it really necessary to reactivate Monju despite all these concerns?
EDITORIAL: Monju test reactor
Monju, the prototype fast-breeder nuclear reactor located in Tsuruga, Fukui Prefecture, remains idle with little hope of resuming operations any time soon. It has been shut since dangerous sodium coolant leaked in December 1995.
Last autumn, holes caused by corrosion were found in an outdoor ventilation duct. This delayed a planned test to verify the safety of the plant, making it difficult for the operator, the Japan Atomic Energy Agency (JAEA), to achieve its target of reactivating the reactor in February. That’s the agency’s explanation for the fourth postponement of its plan to reopen the experimental reactor.
It is said that the agency aims to reactivate Monju in December, but the agency has yet to announce a timeframe. This is a good opportunity to take a fresh look at the worries and doubts that plague the Monju project.
What is most troubling is the agency’s poor track record concerning safety awareness and quality control.
After the sodium leak accident, the Power Reactor and Nuclear Fuel Development Corp. (Donen), the now-defunct organization that managed Monju back then, was harshly criticized for falsifying reports and concealing information. The JAEA, which has taken over Donen’s operations, is supposed to have made an all-out effort to fix the problems that arose from the way Monju was previously managed.
When a sodium leak detector sounded a false alarm last spring, however, the agency failed to swiftly notify the local governments and other parties concerned. With regard to the exhaust duct, the agency neglected to carry out maintenance and repair work for so long that the corrosion went unchecked. After a special safety inspection into the JAEA last year, the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, an arm of the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, sharply rebuked the entity. It wouldn’t take much to torpedo what remains of public confidence in the Monju project. However, there is apparently no sense of crisis within the JAEA.
There have been few cases at home or abroad where a nuclear power facility has been reactivated after remaining dormant for so long. Naturally, there are concerns that new problems with the facility may have emerged during the prolonged suspension of operations.
Is it really necessary to reactivate Monju despite all these concerns? The wisdom of continuing the project is now being called into question. Fast-breeder reactors, which produce more nuclear fuel than they consume, have been presented by promoters as “dream reactors.” This is the core technology for the government’s plan to establish a nuclear fuel cycle that relies on reprocessed spent nuclear fuel. The government aims to build a demonstration reactor around 2025 and put commercial reactors into operation around 2050.
The construction of Monju, designed as a test facility to confirm the viability of the technology, began in 1985. In addition to the construction cost of 590 billion yen, an additional 17.9 billion yen has been spent on improving the prototype reactor since the 1995 accident. Even though it is out of operation, Monju still costs the government an average 9.8 billion yen a year. The annual operation cost after restarting operations has been estimated at between 15 billion and 18 billion yen.
It is not clear what specific benefits would be gained from such a huge expense outlay.
A new active fault has been discovered in areas around the Monju site, causing concern about the facility’s ability to withstand an earthquake. The government cannot win public support for the Monju project by merely claiming that this important nuclear policy must be promoted.
The government has argued that fast-breeder reactors, which convert non-fissionable uranium in the fuel to fissionable plutonium, are crucial for resource-poor Japan’s future energy needs. But it is far from clear whether the Monju project will really lead to a practical use of the technology. It is probably time for the government to reconsider its road map to developing fast-breeder reactors.
Copyright The Asahi Shimbun, Feb. 2(IHT/Asahi: February 3,2009)