It is bad enough that Fukui Prefecture was chosen to be the nuclear industry’s beachhead back into mainstream life in Japan. The Ooi reactors restarted last week despite a public majority against restarting any nuclear facilities until the safety of Japan’s nuclear industry was assured. PM Noda provided his personal assurances which, while it did nothing to change the public’s negative opinion of the move, gave the nuclear industry the perfect cover to resume operations.
On the heels of the Ooi restart comes word now that the ill-fated, costly, and controversial Monju Fast Breeder Reactor (FBR) will resume “test” operations beginning in July.
From Asahi Shinbun Fukui local version on June 22, 2012:
Monju to be restored next month [July]
Fast breeder “Monju” (in Tsuruga City, Fukui Prefecture), whose operation has been suspended due to numerous problems, is expected to be fully restored in mid July. Japan Atomic Energy Agency (JAEA) showed the restoration work to the press on June 21, demonstrating the equipment, newly installed after the accident [of the IVTM dropped inside the reactor], operated normally.
At Monju, the In-Vessel Transfer Machine that is used to replace nuclear fuel fell inside the reactor in August 2010, and the test operation was halted. The plan was to restart the operation by the end of March this year, but the restoration work has taken longer.
On June 21, as the workers at JAEA and the plant manufacturers looked on, two personnel from the Japan Nuclear Energy Safety Organization (JNES) confirmed the newly replaced IVTM worked. They will confirm the operation of the electro-magnetic brakes attached to the control rods, and the test operation is set to resume in mid July.
Monju’s operation has been nothing but “test operation” for nearly 20 years (the reactor achieved criticality in April of 1994), and for the most part it has been idle because of seemingly endless problems. The biggest of all was the leak of liquid sodium coolant that resulted in fire at the plant in December of 1995, but what was at issue was not so much of the fire incident itself. The Power Reactor and Nuclear Fuel Development Corporation, who was running the plant at that time, downplayed the accident and hid the information of the accident.
More than anything else, the loss of credibility was what stopped Monju operation until March 2010, when the NISA deemed the reactor was “appropriately safe”. The governor of Fukui set about restarting the plant. It reached the criticality in May 2010, only to have the IVTM dropped into the reactor 3 months later.
While many people are now concerned about their run-of-the-mill neighborhood nuclear facilities, FBRs are a different breed, an experimental technology that has been defunded in the US and ultimately abandoned (though Obama has restarted plans for a new generation FBR). The problems with the FBR are that the technology has yet to be proven, the developmental costs are unsustainable, and even minor problems result in long-term shut downs, all problems experienced at the Monju facility.
“The problems (with fast breeder reactors) … make it hard to dispute Admiral Hyman Rickover’s summation in 1956, based on his experience with a sodium-cooled reactor developed to power an early U.S. nuclear submarine, that such reactors are ‘expensive to build, complex to operate, susceptible to prolonged shutdown as a result of even minor malfunctions, and difficult and time-consuming to repair.’” Plagued by high costs, often multi-year downtime for repairs (including a 15-year reactor restart delay in Japan), multiple safety problems (among them often catastrophic sodium fires triggered simply by contact with oxygen), and unresolved proliferation risks, “fast breeder” reactors already have been the focus of more than $50 billion in development spending, including more than $10 billion each by the U.S., Japan and Russia. As the IPFM report notes: “Yet none of these efforts has produced a reactor that is anywhere near economically competitive with light-water reactors … After six decades and the expenditure of the equivalent of tens of billions of dollars, the promise of breeder reactors remains largely unfulfilled and efforts to commercialize them have been steadily cut back in most countries.“
For the Japanese nuclear industry, however, high costs and extraordinary safety risks mean nothing. Oddly, a subcommittee of the Japan Atomic Energy Commission disagreed with the industry’s optimism just this past January.
A panel of experts reviewing the nuclear fuel cycle policy in light of the Fukushima crisis has agreed that while a fast-breeder reactor has advantages, from a technology viewpoint it can’t be considered a realistic option for the next 20 to 30 years.
Prior to that report (December 2011), Kyodo reported that the government would not fund a test run of the Monju reactor in 2012.
The government will not earmark funding for a test run of the Monju prototype fast-breeder reactor in the fiscal 2012 budget following a Diet panel’s call to cut spending on the project and its nuclear fuel cycle program, Masaharu Nakagawa, the science minister, said Tuesday.
Nakagawa, who is minister of education, culture, sports, science and technology, told a news conference that the government “will exclude (spending on the Monju test run) after various views” were expressed in the Diet on the project earlier this month.
Nakagawa said if the government decides to continue the reactor’s development next year it will “flexibly” secure spending for a test run in a supplementary budget.
Apparently, the nuclear industry has since explained to these scientists, politicians, and bureaucrats that the reactor will be restarted in 2012 and that the government would have to “flexibly” secure the funds for it. It seems that the Fukui population is destined to be test subjects for all kinds of nuclear activities. Let the protests begin.