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.
TSURUGA, JAPAN —
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.
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.