News / Asia

Japan Plans Restart of Controversial Reactor

<b><i>VOA Correspondent Steve Herman was given unprecedented access inside Japan's Fast Breeder Reactor Research and Development Center at a time when the country is debating its future energy policy in wake of last year's Fukushima nuclear disaster.</b></i>

There has been an ongoing debate in Japan on the best way to obtain a safe and affordable energy supply for the island nation.  The nuclear option suffered a setback in March, 2011, when a massive earthquake and devastating tsunami caused a meltdown in reactors at Japan's main Fukushima-1 nuclear power plant.

The Japanese government had proposed, but then quickly stepped back from, phasing out all existing nuclear plants by 2040 (with a loophole that under-construction reactors would be able to come online and run for several more decades).

The reversal occurred, in great part, because of pressure from powerful business organizations, including major corporations with vested interests in the nuclear industry, that argued expensive imported fossil fuels for conventional plants will hurt Japan's productivity.  

The lobbying has also forestalled scrapping a controversial, 25-year-old fast breeder reactor on the country's western coast in Fukui prefecture.

Science and Technology Minister Hirofumi Hirano informed Fukui prefecture Governor Issei Nishikawa on September 18 that the central government has no plans to scrap the Monju fast-breeder reactor.

Breakthrough technology with a poor track record

Monju's backers say the reactor offers a panacea for resource-poor Japan's energy woes.

"We can have energy supplied for 1,000 years because we can create the fuel here," asserts Satoru Kondo, the director general of the Japan Atomic Energy Agency's Fast Breeder Reactor Research and Development Center.

Fast breeder reactors are faster and more efficient than conventional ones and use liquid metal sodium instead of water to conduct the reactor’s thermal energy.

The United States, the United Kingdom, Russia, France and China have also built fast breeder reactors since the new technology was invented in the 1950's. India has a prototype under construction. Most of the early projects in the west have since ended.

But 25 years and $13 billion after construction began, the Monju fast breeder reactor has managed to produce electricity for only one hour.

“One trillion yen is a small investment over 10 to 20 years as long as we can achieve something significant for humanity,” says Saburo Kikuchi, former executive director of the Japan Atomic Energy Agency (JAEA).

Kondo echoes that sentiment, saying that even though Monju has not lit many light bulbs for very long, the basic technology and accumulated data are valuable.

"We cannot abandon this half century effort," is the plea from the director general.

  • A view of the Monju fast breeder reactor facility in Tsuruga, Fukui Pref., Japan. (Steve Herman/VOA)
  • The primary and secondary cooling systems each contain 760 tons of sodium. (Steve Herman/VOA)
  • The primary and secondary cooling systems each contain 760 tons of sodium. (Steve Herman/VOA)
  • A control rod drive mechanism inside Monju. (Steve Herman/VOA)
  • Feedwater heaters in the turbine building at the Monju fast breeder reactor facility. (Steve Herman/VOA)
  • A family fishes and picnics across the bay from the Monju nuclear reactor facility. (Steve Herman/VOA)


Ending dependence on imported nuclear fuel

Monju was never intended to be primarily a generator of electricity. Rather the priority has been to produce plutonium.

Scientists believe the fast-breeder reactor could create fuel for the country’s other reactors, ending the need for imported uranium, 90 percent of which comes from the United States.

While it is still less expensive for Japan and other countries to buy uranium than produce their own nuclear fuels, that may change if mined uranium becomes scarce.

Japan owns more than 20 tons of spent radioactive fuel deposited in France and the United Kingdom and holds several tons of plutonium at its domestic Tokaimura reprocessing facility.

A series of accidents has suspended operations for years at a time at Monju. In 1995, hundreds of kilograms of molten sodium leaked. Although not considered a serious accident by nuclear experts, questions about the qualifications of technicians and a cover-up of details of the fiery accident prompted severe criticism and a 14-year shutdown for Monju.

The JAEA says modification of the thermocouple wells on the faulty secondary circuit ensure that a similar sodium leak could never occur again.

Just months after operations resumed in 2010, a three-ton piece of equipment, known as an in-vessel transfer machine, fell on the 18-meter high reactor vessel, hindering access to the fuel rods.
  
Problem-plagued reactor poised for restart

Since the successful removal of the dropped machine in June of last year, Monju has been gearing up to resume full operations.

"It will depend on the results of the testing now underway here and government approval, but we are hoping for 100 percent operation of Monju," says plant deputy director general Takehide Deshima.

If all goes according to plan, sometime next year, the turbines will start spinning again and Monju will generate electricity out onto the grid, hopefully, this time for more than one hour.

Industry sources say Monju, which has an output of 280 megawatts of electricity, could be marketed on a provisional basis with a production unit cost of about 42 yen per kilowatt/hour, equivalent to cost of solar power to wholesalers, but far above the five to seven yen per kilowatt/hour for electricity from conventional nuclear plants in Japan.
 
“Although the media continues to focus on the Fukushima accident, things are already calming down and that trend will continue. I'm confident the silent majority of Japanese who are contemplating the country's energy policy will return to supporting our industry,” says Kikuchi.  

Worries over safety, security

Anti-nuclear activists contend fast breeders are more dangerous than conventional reactors.

"What's frightening is that it has the property that once it starts running out of control it can't be stopped, like any other nuclear reactor and it would load 60 times the explosive power of the Nagasaki nuclear bomb," wrote Greenpeace Japan's nuclear campaigner Kazue Suzuki in a recently updated position paper sent to VOA. "Ultimately, it will end in failure."

Monju's supporters say safety has dramatically improved because of lessons learned from the plant's own accidents as well as studying what went wrong at Fukushima. But after the triple reactor meltdowns at Fukushima-1 plant, Kondo of the JAEA, acknowledges "we lost our credibility in some sense but we are doing our best to make Monju much safer."

Other concerns about Monju make it a frequent target of criticism. Still, the facility, and the hundreds of jobs its brings with it, has managed to maintain support from Tsuruga's mayor and the prefectural governor.  

What no one can ignore is that Monju is located adjacent to an earthquake fault. But the JAEA, in figures released in early August at a meeting of experts, says the latest assessments indicate the facility could withstand a massive quake similar to the one that struck northeast Japan last year, as well as a tsunami of up to 21 meters.

There are also worries over the weapons-grade plutonium the reactor can produce. Nuclear energy officials say international inspections and Japanese law ensure Monju's plutonium cannot be diverted to any clandestine weapons project.

Monju as model for nuclear waste disposal

That may leave Monju taking on another more altruistic role, based on its ability to also consume, rather than simply create, plutonium.

Following the inaugural meeting in July in Tokyo of the U.S.-Japan Bilateral Commission on Civil Nuclear Cooperation, U.S. Department of Energy Deputy Secretary Daniel Poneman told reporters "if you could use fast reactors to burn down plutonium that would be a good thing."

Monju was a topic in the U.S.-Japan meeting, according to Science magazine, with discussion about the plant's ability to burn plutonium and the long-lived isotopes of elements such as neptunium and americium that account for much of the radiotoxicity of nuclear waste.  Japanese sources say the United States is looking at Monju as a model rather than contemplating shipping its radioactive materials to Japan.

The United States' last fast reactor, the Argonne National Laboratory's Experimental Breeder Reactor-II, was shut down in 1994. Construction of a commercial fast breeder reactor, the Clinch River plant in the state of Tennessee, was halted in 1983 when the U.S. Congress cut funding.

The nation's first fast breeder reactor operated from 1963 until 1972. Its license was not renewed after engineering problems and the plant was decommissioned.

The United States has tens of thousands of tons of radioactive waste at nuclear plants across the country. Disposal of it in deep underground facilities was supposed to have begun in 1998. But the $15 billion site chosen in the Nevada desert at Yucca Mountain, remains unfinished amid a remaining series of legal, political and technical hurdles.

Steve Herman

A veteran journalist, Steve Herman is VOA's Southeast Asia Bureau Chief and Correspondent, based in Bangkok.

You May Like

UN Ambassador Power Highlights Plight of Women Prisoners

She launches the 'Free the 20' campaign, aimed at profiling women being deprived of their freedom around the world More

Satellite Launch Sparks Spectacular Light Show

A slight delay in a satellite launch lit up the Florida sky early this morning More

Fleeing IS Killings in Syria, Family Reaches Bavaria

Exhausted, scared and under-nourished, Khalil and Maha's tale mirrors those of thousands of refugees from war-torn countries who have left their homes in the hopes of finding a better life More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Nobel Prize Winner Malala Talks to VOAi
X
August 31, 2015 2:17 AM
Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai met with VOA's Deewa service in Washington Sunday to talk about women’s rights and unveil a trailer for her new documentary. VOA's Katherine Gypson has more.
Video

Video Nobel Prize Winner Malala Talks to VOA

Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai met with VOA's Deewa service in Washington Sunday to talk about women’s rights and unveil a trailer for her new documentary. VOA's Katherine Gypson has more.
Video

Video War, Drought Threaten Iraq's Marshlands

Iraq's southern wetlands are in crisis. These areas are the spawning ground for Gulf fisheries, a resting place for migrating wildfowl, and source of livelihood for fishermen and herders. Faith Lapidus has more.
Video

Video Colombians Flee Venezuela as Border Crisis Escalates

Hundreds of Colombians have fled Venezuela since last week, amid an escalating border crisis between the two countries. Last week, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro ordered the closure of a key border crossing after smugglers injured three Venezuelan soldiers and a civilian. The president also ordered the deportation of Colombians who are in Venezuela illegally. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Rebuilding New Orleans' Music Scene

Ten years after Hurricane Katrina inundated New Orleans, threatening to wash away its vibrant musical heritage along with its neighborhoods, the beat goes on. As Bronwyn Benito and Faith Lapidus report, a Musicians' Village is preserving the city's unique sound.
Video

Video In Russia, Auto Industry in Tailspin

Industry insiders say country relies too heavily on imports as inflation cuts too many consumers out of the market. Daniel Schearf has more from Moscow.
Video

Video Scientist Calls Use of Fetal Tissue in Medical Research Essential

An anti-abortion group responsible for secret recordings of workers at a women's health care organization claims the workers shown are offering baby parts for sale, a charge the organization strongly denies. While the selling of fetal tissue is against the law in the United States, abortion and the use of donated fetal tissue for medical research are both legal. VOA’s Julie Taboh reports.
Video

Video Next to Iran, Climate at Forefront of Obama Agenda

President Barack Obama this week announced new initiatives aimed at making it easier for Americans to access renewable energy sources such as solar and wind. Obama is not slowing down when it comes to pushing through climate change measures, an issue he says is the greatest threat to the country’s national security. VOA correspondent Aru Pande has more from the White House.
Video

Video Arctic Draws International Competition for Oil

A new geopolitical “Great Game” is underway in earth’s northernmost region, the Arctic, where Russia has claimed a large area for resource development and President Barack Obama recently approved Shell Oil Company’s test-drilling project in an area under U.S. control. Greg Flakus reports.
Video

Video Philippine Maritime Police: Chinese Fishermen a Threat to Country’s Security

China and the Philippines both claim maritime rights in the South China Sea.  That includes the right to fish in those waters. Jason Strother reports on how the Philippines is catching Chinese nationals it says are illegal poachers. He has the story from Palawan province.
Video

Video China's Spratly Island Building Said to Light Up the Night 'Like A City'

Southeast Asian countries claim China has illegally seized territory in the Spratly islands. It is especially a concern for a Philippine mayor who says Beijing is occupying parts of his municipality. Jason Strother reports from the capital of Palawan province, Puerto Princesa.
Video

Video Ages-old Ice Reveals Secrets of Climate Change

Ice caps don't just exist at the world's poles. There are also tropical ice caps, and the largest sits atop the Peruvian Andes - but it is melting, quickly, and may be gone within the next 20 years. George Putic reports scientists are now rushing to take samples to get at the valuable information about climate change locked in the ice.

VOA Blogs