Editorial: Neglect in fast-breeder reactor inspection

Citing the Act on the Regulation of Nuclear Source Material, Nuclear Fuel Material and Reactors, the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) is expected to order that preparations for resuming operations of the Monju prototype fast-breeder reactor, located in Tsuruga, Fukui Prefecture, be suspended. Behind this decision lies the fact that nearly 10,000 parts of the reactor’s components have not been properly inspected.

It is suspected that the operator had grown lax during the time the reactor was offline. Regardless, since this neglect was discovered last November, with the accident at the Fukushima nuclear power plant still fresh in memory, the operator can only be considered morally bereft in its duty.

Tsuruga Mayor Kazuharu Kawase said, “I can understand those who call into question the preparations for resuming operations at the plant, when the examination of the inspection’s shortcomings hasn’t been finished.” The Japan Atomic Energy Agency admits that it lacks adequate communication between its management and its staff on site, among other difficulties, but we suspect these are not the only areas of concern.

Monju has been plagued by problems involving both safety and cost. The NRA believes the plant’s safety management system is deficient. There is the possibility that the NRA will not give a time frame for all the inspections necessary to resume operations at the plant, which could lead to the virtual decommissioning of the reactor.

In 1995, one year after Monju achieved criticality, an accident occurred in which there was a leak of sodium, used as a coolant, and this fact was concealed from public view. In 2010, the reactor was restarted for the first time in 15 years. However, there was technical trouble right after operations resumed, which put the reactor offline again.

Fast-breeder reactors use a mix of plutonium and uranium oxide fuel (MOX). Unlike ordinary reactors, like light-water reactors, it was seen as the “ideal reactor” that could generate more fuel than it consumed for its operations. It has been over 40 years since the Japanese government first conceived the plan. Even if Monju is returned to the right track, research must first be carried out on the model reactor. This would require at least another 40 years before the practical application of the fast-breeder technology.

Even though the reactor is idle, about 20 billion yen is poured into maintenance and other expenses each year. To date, the total investment has exceeded one trillion yen. Will such massive waste, an unthinkable act when viewed through the lens of common sense, be permitted to continue?

Monju, along with the spent fuel reprocessing plant in the village of Rokkasho, Aomori Prefecture, makes up the nuclear fuel cycle. The plutonium used for MOX fuel is reprocessed from spent nuclear fuel.

If there is no use for the plutonium, though, the cycle cannot be fulfilled. Furthermore, the accumulation of plutonium, without a proper use for the material, means that Japan can be subject to criticism from the international community with respect to nuclear non-proliferation.

Aomori prefecture refuses to become merely a storage site for spent nuclear fuel. While Monju remains offline, the whole nuclear fuel cycle must be reviewed.

In addition, the NRA has vigorously stressed the risks involving nuclear power plants which sit on active fault lines, refuting claims made by operators in their own assessments in this area. According to guidelines set by the Japanese government, placing a nuclear power station on an active fault line is unacceptable.

In the vicinity of Wakasa Bay, where a number of nuclear plants are located, this concern has been raised in connection to some reactors, including the No. 2 reactor at the Tsuruga nuclear power plant. Monju is the subject of examination, too.

At yesterday’s meeting of the House of Councilors’ Budget Committee, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe mentioned the nuclear fuel cycle, saying that he is poised to continue moving forward with the effort.

Although the NRA was launched under the Noda administration, Shunichi Tanaka, chairman of the NRA, has stressed that it will remain an independent body.

It seems the NRA’s actions on this occasion are evidence of Mr. Tanaka’s intention. We hope that the NRA will maintain this stance, despite the fact its target is national policy known as the nuclear fuel cycle.

(Originally published on May 14, 2013)