Problems with prototype reactor threaten Japan’s nuclear fuel recycling plan — The Japan Times

” Japan’s energy policy is facing major obstacles this year, as problems surrounding an experimental reactor threaten to foil long-laid plans to recycle nuclear fuel.

The government is trying to develop a commercial fast-breeder nuclear reactor to recycle nuclear fuel and raise the energy self-sufficiency rate, currently at about 6 percent, of the world’s fifth-largest energy consuming country.

Resource-poor Japan imports all of its uranium for nuclear power generation — one of its core power sources — from Canada and other countries, but it seeks to make fuel on its own using an advanced fast-breeder reactor capable of producing more plutonium than it consumes.

Plutonium can be used as nuclear fuel for conventional and fast-breeder reactors by mixing it with uranium. Japan currently uses overseas companies to reprocess its spent fuel into uranium-plutonium mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel, with a view to homegrown reprocessing in the future.

The fast-breeder reactor development project recently hit a major stumbling block, however, that put the entire project at risk of shutting down.

The regulator instructed the government in November to consider steps to guarantee the safety of the trouble-prone Monju reactor, including an option to close it down if a new operator cannot be found within six months.

The government has spent more than ¥1 trillion ($8.27 billion) on Monju, a prototype fast-breeder nuclear reactor that remains under development.

But ongoing safety problems have left the reactor idled for much of the time since it first achieved criticality in 1994.

The Nuclear Regulation Authority has criticized the current operator, the government-backed Japan Atomic Energy Agency, for having made little progress in enhancing safety management even after a slew of safety problems led to a protracted halt in operations.

Hiroshi Hase, the science minister in charge of the project, set up a panel to discuss a possible successor to operate the reactor.

But the regulator’s warning sparked concerns over the fate of the project, as many industry observers think it would be tough to find a replacement.

Establishing yet another government body is no longer a solution after the government’s repeated attempts to create new entities to run Monju failed to realize safe operation, an NRA official said.

The JAEA, established in 2005 by the government through a merger of two former national nuclear research institutions, is already the Monju plant’s third operator.

It would be too risky to let a private company take charge of the prototype reactor, which generates electricity in a more complex way than light-water reactors that many utilities run at present, experts said.

“A (private) power company doesn’t have the technical expertise” to run a fast-breeder nuclear reactor, Makoto Yagi, chairman of the Federation of Electric Power Companies of Japan (FEPC), told reporters when asked about replacements for the JAEA.

The Japan Institute for National Fundamentals, a pro-nuclear activist group, criticized the NRA’s decision as a move that could lead to the closure of Monju and a drastic overhaul of the country’s nuclear energy policy.

The government should “correct the Nuclear Regulation Authority’s excessive” behavior, the institute said in a newspaper advertisement in December, arguing that the NRA has no jurisdiction over the nation’s energy policy.

Shunichi Tanaka, the head of the NRA, has repeatedly said his body wants the science minister, who is in charge of the Monju project, to ensure the experimental reactor’s safety and has no intention to push the ministry to discontinue it.

“It is up to the ministry to decide” whether to close it, Tanaka said at a news conference.

Hideyuki Ban, co-director of the Citizens’ Nuclear Information Center, an independent anti-nuclear advocacy group, said no power companies and government bodies have the ability to carry out the project safely.

“I think (closing it) is really what the government should do,” he said.

Monju has a long track record of problems, starting with a major fire caused by a sodium leak in 1995 that resulted in the project being suspended until May 2010.

It was halted again in August of the same year after a fuel replacement device for the reactor was accidentally dropped, leaving it inoperable until now.

Shutting down the reactor due to safety issues would be tantamount to Japan giving up on development of a commercial fast-breeder reactor, Ban said.

However, terminating the project could create a new headache: the stockpiling of plutonium with no fast-breeder reactor running on MOX fuel to use it. Such a decision would reinforce international fears that the nuclear fuel could be put to military use.

Chinese envoy Fu Cong said in a speech to the U.N. General Assembly’s First Committee in October that Japan’s fissile materials inventory is already large enough to make more than 1,000 nuclear warheads.

The FEPC had planned to use such MOX fuel at 15 conventional reactors by the end of March 2016. That plan, however, has been stalled since the Fukushima meltdowns of 2011 left most reactors in Japan suspended for safety reviews under newly tightened regulations.

If abandoning the fast-breeder reactor project derails Japan’s plan to launch its own reprocessing of spent fuel, concerns are likely to grow over what to do with spent fuel.

“If the Monju project falls through, there is no doubt that calls for reviewing the energy policy will grow louder,” Ban said. ”



Virtual reality to be used to help decommission Fukushima plant — The Asahi Shimbun

” NARAHA, Fukushima Prefecture–A virtual reality system here that will assist in the decommissioning of the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant is preparing for full-scale operations this spring.

Located at the Naraha Remote Technology Development Center, the system features a 3.6-meter-high display that simulates 3-D images of the interiors of the reactor buildings at the Fukushima plant.

The research and training center was developed by the Japan Atomic Energy Agency as part of efforts for the lengthy decommissioning process, which is expected to take 30 to 40 years.

By using dedicated virtual reality goggles, researchers can view simulated 3-D images of the interiors of reactor buildings that are currently inaccessible to humans because of dangerous levels of radiation. The display shows estimated dose of radiation levels in millisieverts during planned work at the site in the upper part of the image.

The center also features a model of a reactor containment vessel to be used for training in decommissioning methods. ”


Science minister inspects troubled Monju nuclear reactor — The Japan Times

Science and technology minister Hiroshi Hase inspected the Monju prototype fast-breeder nuclear reactor on Wednesday after nuclear regulators last month asked his ministry to change the facility’s operator following a series of safety lapses.

Ahead of the visit to the reactor, operated by the Japan Atomic Energy Agency in Tsuruga, Fukui Prefecture, Hase held talks with Fukui Gov. Issei Nishikawa at the prefectural government office in the city of Fukui. Hase also met with Tsuruga Mayor Takanobu Fuchikami.

During his visit to the Monju reactor, Hase received a briefing from JAEA President Toshio Kodama and Kazumi Aoto, who is in charge of the plant.

The minister inspected the reactor, which is still filled with uranium-plutonium mixed oxide (MOX) fuel despite being idle since 2010, and watched staff work in the central control room.

Hase asked whether a crane he could see was ever used, to which Aoto answered that it was used to move equipment and regularly received safety checks, according to JAEA officials.

During their meeting in the Tsuruga city government office, Fuchikami handed the minister written requests on five items, including promoting understanding of nuclear power.

Hase responded by saying the ministry would consider it.

Asked by reporters about the safety lapses at the reactor, Hase said he felt there may have been lack of communication between those who worked at the plant and the Nuclear Regulation Authority.

Referring to the NRA’s request to change the operator of the Monju reactor, Hase said discussions involving experts was needed.

During his meeting with Fukui Gov. Nishikawa, Hase said he also planned to hear feedback on the matter from local governments.

In November, the NRA concluded that the JAEA lacked the ability to operate the Monju reactor safely. It asked the ministry, which oversees the reactor, to respond to its request within six months. ”


NRA starts clock ticking on Monju, advising operator be replaced — The Japan Times

” The Nuclear Regulation Authority on Friday asked the science minister to find a new operator to manage Monju, the troubled prototype fast-breeder reactor that is the centerpiece of the nation’s nuclear fuel cycle program.

The NRA said it lacks confidence that the semi-public Japan Atomic Energy Agency can continue running the costly and accident-prone facility in Fukui Prefecture.

Although the request is nonbinding, the NRA said the Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry, which oversees the Monju project, has about six months to look for a new operator and report back. If it fails to find one, the ministry should “fundamentally review” what to do with the reactor.

NRA Chairman Shunichi Tanaka did not comment on whether this means Monju will be decommissioned. He said it is too early to say.

But he said the recommendation has “significant meaning” because it is the first since issued by the NRA since its creation in 2012.

Tanaka was speaking after talks with science minister Hiroshi Hase in Tokyo on Friday.

If the ministry fails to find a new operator that meets the NRA’s approval, Monju, which has cost taxpayers more than ¥1 trillion, may face decommissioning.

Later in the day, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said the government “should take the recommendation from the NRA very gravely,” considering the slew of problems it has faced.

“We’d likely to respond sincerely,” Suga said.

But the government will maintain its policy of establishing a nuclear fuel recycling system regardless of Monju’s fate, Suga added.

“There is no change in our policy to promote (the nuclear fuel cycle), as decided in the Basic Energy Plan,” Suga said. The plan was adopted in April last year.

Hase said the ministry understands the gravity of the situation and will take action.

Fast-breeder reactors such as Monju use sodium as coolant and are designed to recycle nuclear fuel into another power source. Japan lacks significant energy sources of its own.

However, the Monju reactor has only briefly entered operation. It has been idle since a fire triggered by a vast sodium leak in 1995.

In 2012, it was found that JAEA had failed to inspect nearly 10,000 devices at the reactor despite being required to do so. Subsequently, dozens of monitoring cameras were found not to be functioning, and inspectors found a significant leak of radioactive liquid because an alarm had been ignored for more than a year.

In May 2013, the NRA ordered the suspension of Monju’s operation until the establishment of a system to prevent further safety slips.

JAEA President Toshio Kodama met NRA members earlier this month and vowed to improve the situation. The agency’s move Friday was an apparent sign that it has had enough — and an admission that despite repeated warnings the ministry has failed to come up to scratch. ”


JAEA opens Fukushima R&D center for decommissioning reactors — The Asahi Shimbun

” NARAHA, Fukushima Prefecture–The Japan Atomic Energy Agency officially christened its new facility here on Oct. 19 that will develop technologies to decommission the reactors at the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.

The Naraha Remote Technology Development Center will conduct research to develop remote-control decommissioning technologies as radiation levels within the reactors remain too high for workers to enter following a triple meltdown in the aftermath of the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami.

The opening ceremony was attended by 105 people, including Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, science and technology minister Hiroshi Hase and Fukushima Governor Masao Uchibori.

“The decommissioning process is a lengthy one that will take up to 40 years,” Abe said. “This facility was set up to consolidate the world’s knowledge to face the unknown.”

Featuring a life-sized mock-up of a damaged reactor and virtual reality systems, the center will test new machines and methods to remotely remove nuclear fuel from the Fukushima plant.

Experts hope that research and development at the facility will lead to a reduction in the number of failures of devices deployed at the crippled plant.

Abe witnessed a demonstration of a new scorpion-shaped robot, which will eventually be deployed inside the No. 2 reactor at the Fukushima plant.

The Naraha center will also erect in March a life-sized model of a reactor suppression chamber located beneath the containment vessel that was damaged in the 2011 disaster. Because the containment vessel has to be filled with water to remove the melted fuel inside, researchers plan to first develop technology to patch up the container to prevent leaks.

The facility is also equipped with a virtual reality system that projects onto a screen a computer-generated world simulating the space inside the damaged reactor buildings. The interior layouts of the crippled buildings are based on data collected by remote control robots deployed at the plant.

The technology will devise routes in removing melted fuel, along with coming up with methods to minimize the amount of radiation that workers will be exposed to.

The JAEA is also setting up a facility in Okuma to monitor the amount of radioactive materials inside the plant grounds. A total of 85 billion yen ($711.4 million) will be used to build the two JAEA facilities.

“There are still 100,000 people evacuated from the disaster,” said Toshio Kodama, JAEA president. “We hope to fulfill the role the JAEA is meant to play in the decommissioning process.” ”


*Letter from Murata Mitsuhei, former Japanese ambassador to Switzerland

May 6, 2015, The Worsening Situation in Fukushima

Mitsuhei Murata, Former Japanese Ambassador to Switzerland

Since early April, a soaring level of radiation has been reported in some parts of Fukushima. The weekly magazine “Playboy” (dated May 4, 2015) carried a shocking four-page article with photos and such subtitles as: “Melting out of nuclear fuel”; “Horrors of critical chain reactions at the depths of the earth”; “Steam gushing out of Unit 3”; and “Rising of the temperature of the spent fuel pool water at Unit 2.”

This article alarms us by pointing out that the Japan Atomic Energy Agency has detected materials that suggest re-criticality at Fukushima Daiichi. It also tells us that, since the beginning of this year, we notice an increase in the amount of Cesium 134 and tritium that show the recurrence of a nuclear fission reaction.

The article warns us that if critical chain reactions at the depths of the earth happen to the debris of Fukushima Daiichi, the mass of which is extraordinarily voluminous, it will lead to a gigantic nuclear disaster of global scale.

On April 21, Tepco announced that contaminated rain water had leaked into the sea due to the failure of the pumping system. The president of a subcontracting company contacted me to convey his anger over this incident, stressing the following points:

  1. The incident is attributed to power failure, but, instead of carrying out verification every three hours as required by the rules, nothing was done for 20 hours. This is totally unpardonable. It was a telephone call he received from a relevant fisherman that helped to discover the incident.
  2. Tepco lacks qualified staff to work out a solution on the site. So many blunders committed by Tepco followed by repeated apologies justify the joke that Tepco had better produce apologizing robots.
  3. In the new energy policy recently announced, the cost of nuclear power generation is presented as 10.1 yen/KW, a number universally considered as a huge lie. It mocks the whole population.
  4. My plea for installing dust sampling gauges to cope with internal radiation problems made immediately after the 3/11 accident remains totally ignored.

Under such circumstances, I have established contact with authorities in Fukushima Prefecture. On April 22, they informed me that the instruments for measuring radioactivity (77 in all) were out of order and would be replaced in due course. They told me that they have stopped publishing the radioactivity-related numbers on the homepage of the Nuclear Regulatory Authority.

On May 6, I asked them for their comments on the above-mentioned article in “Playboy.” They do not deny the dangers pointed out by the article, but, unless they take concrete steps like removing the nuclear fuel, they think there will not be any increased dangers under present circumstances.

The foregoing should be regarded as a serious warning against an eventual severe nuclear accident. On individual, regional and national levels, serious efforts are needed to improve the situation.

The Tokyo Olympic Games give the false impression that Fukushima is under control. The fact is, however, that the situation in Fukushima is worsening. Japan is, alas, damaging the global environment with never-ending radioactive contamination.

Japan should devote maximum efforts to bring Fukushima under control, mobilizing human wisdom on the widest possible scale. “