Nuclear mattersJapan to restart controversial fast-breeder reactor

Published 16 January 2009

Japan, an economic giant with no natural energy resources, is to restart its controversial fast-breeder nuclear reactor this year after a series of safety scares caused the closing of the plant for more than 13 years

Japan has an ambivalent attitude toward nuclear power. This is not only the result of the painful memory of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but also of these two facts: On the one hand, Japan does not have any natural energy resources; on the other hand, Japan is an earthquake-prone country, and two things you do not want to build atop a tectonic fault line are nuclear reactors and nuclear-waste repositories.

Still, the hunger for energy is pressing, so the state-run Japan Atomic Energy Agency is putting the final touches to Monju, the nation’s only fast-breeder reactor. The agency has repeatedly postponed the relaunch as problems keep coming up and it struggles to convince many residents of Tsuruga, 220 miles west of Tokyo, of the plant’s safety. “Monju is far from being in a condition that would make local residents feel safe to run it again,” said Miwako Ogiso, leader of a group opposed to the gigantic plant.

Fast-breeder reactors (FBRs) have often been described as “dream reactors” because they produce more fuel than they consume — and also produce less waste: They produce plutonium by burning the waste left by more conventional light-water reactors. Major world economies rushed to develop fast-breeders over the past five decades, following the United States, which generated the world’s first nuclear energy with an FBR constructed in 1946.

AFP reports that a series of problems, along with fears over the proliferation of plutonium, which can be converted to produce nuclear weapons, led all Western nations to withdraw from FBR projects. France is closing its last fast-breeder reactor — the Phenix — this year and in 2005 asked to join the Monju project in Japan, which is the only nation without nuclear weapons that still has an FBR program. A group of British academics issued a report earlier last year arguing that the established U.K. nuclear-power industry would inevitably move on to the use of fast-breeder reactors to manufacture plutonium for use as fuel, thus increasing the risk of nuclear weapons proliferation (8 January 2008 HS Daily Wire).

Besides Japan, Russia and India are the only nations that operate fast-breeder reactors, with China planning to start later this year.

Theoretically, fast-breeders would be ideal for resource-poor Japan, which imports virtually all of its oil from the politically unstable Middle East. Despite being the only nation ever attacked by atom bombs, Japan has embraced nuclear power. It relies on its 55 light-water nuclear reactors to produce about one-third of its energy needs. Japan would be able to generate power sustainably at Monju by recycling the used nuclear fuel from the light-water reactors.

The path has not been easy. In 1995, less than two years after Monju had started generating power, dozens of fire alarms went off as a room filled with thick white smoke. The Monju operator later discovered that a special thermometer had broken, leaking high-temperature metallic sodium that reacted violently with oxygen. While there was no danger of a radiation leak, local residents were angered by the secrecy of the operator, which covered up key data and even altered video footage. “In order to regain confidence from local residents and restart the plant, we had to turn the secretive policy around to a more transparent one, which is the biggest change brought after the accident,” said Monju’s director general Kazuo Mukai.

More problems have emerged as the behemoth plant prepares to restart. The operator recently found a corrosion hole on a ventilation duct, which would have leaked radioactive emissions directly into the outside air. “Since operations have been suspended for such a long time, the maintenance of the facility has been neglected, which is inexcusable,” Mukai admitted. The agency had hoped to restart the plant in February, but it now is looking to autumn or later.

It is completely wrong that they are trying to resume operations at the plant just after quickly fixing the bad parts,” Ogiso said. “You never know which part might have gone bad after the plant was closed for 13 years.” Ogiso said her group opposed building any more nuclear plants in Fukui prefecture, where 13 out of the nation’s 55 reactors are concentrated, with two more on the way.

Japan also suffers frequent earthquakes. The world’s biggest nuclear plant, Kashiwazaki-Kariwa, northwest of Tokyo, was shut down by a strong tremor in July 2007, although no one was hurt.