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Japan moves to decommission Monju fast-breeder reactor as costs escalate

In this aerial photo taken in Jan. 2016, the fast-breeder reactor Monju stands in Tsuruga, Fukui prefecture, on the Sea of Japan coast.

Kyodo News via AP

The Japanese government is heading toward decommissioning its troubled fast-breeder reactor, a blow to the country's efforts to develop a system to recycle nuclear fuel.

The government decided to review its fast-breeder policy, including scrapping the Monju fast-breeder reactor, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said at a press briefing on Wednesday.

Monju has functioned for less than a year since its completion more than 20 years ago and has cost more than $9.8-billion (U.S.) amid countless delays.

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Decommissioning the reactor would stymie Japan's half-century effort to create a closed nuclear fuel cycle, a system which would allow the resource-poor nation to recycle old fuel in order to reduce import dependence and insulate itself from fluctuating prices. Fast-breeder reactors, designed to use spent nuclear fuel from other plants and produce more fuel than they use, are key to that goal.

"What does Japan's overall realistic energy plan of the future consist of and how does the nuclear fuel cycle fit into that?" Lake Barrett, a former official with the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, said by e-mail. "Monju's future is only a small aspect of that, however it is an important symbol. Advanced nuclear technology, like the fast breeder, if it can overcome the current social negative stigma, can be of great benefit to Japanese society."

Japan will continue pursuing the development of a nuclear fuel cycle, Hiroshige Seko, minister of economy, trade and industry, said on Wednesday.

The government said before the Fukushima meltdown that it aims to commercialize fast-breeder technology by 2050. Japan's fleet of nuclear reactors were taken offline following the March 2011 Fukushima nuclear meltdown. Just three of the country's 42 operable reactors are currently online.

Monju is operated by the Japan Atomic Energy Agency, a quasi-government organization overseen by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology. The Japan Nuclear Regulation Authority, the country's nuclear regulator, demanded in November that a replacement for JAEA be found for Monju, saying that the agency lacked the ability to operate the reactor safely.

JAEA's Monju facility was taken offline a few months after its commissioning in 1995 due to a sodium leak, and only briefly resumed operations again in 2010. The NRA ordered JAEA in 2013 to suspend preparations to restart the reactor.

"The NRA's 2015 determination of the JAEA as unfit to operate the Monju reactor, coupled with the lack of alternatives, seems to have empowered those who want to stop throwing public finance into a black hole," Andrew DeWit, political economy professor at Rikkyo University in Tokyo, said by e-mail. The post-Fukushima "institutional and political shifts appear likely to impede any well-financed initiative to get the nuclear fuel cycle train back on track via a large domestic project."

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According to a recent Mainichi newspaper poll of the union for JAEA workers, 58 per cent think that Monju should be decommissioned.

Annual maintenance costs for Monju total 20 billion yen ($197-million) a year, which is in addition to the more than 1 trillion yen sunk into the facility since its inception, according to JAEA. Upgrading Monju to meet post-Fukushima safety standards would cost at least another 580 billion yen, according to TV Asahi, which cited a government estimate.

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