Japan’s Nuclear Holy Grail Slips Away With Operator Elusive

  • Deadline passed to pick operator of Monju fast-breeder plant
  • Prototype reactor has cost more than $9 billion amid delays

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.”

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