Koizumi’s nuclear power questions – The Japan Times editorial

” While political repercussions continue over former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s surprise calls for ending nuclear power generation in Japan, what the once popular leader points out are all sensible and legitimate questions about Japan’s energy policy that remain unanswered by members of the Abe administration. Any energy policy that fails to squarely answer the questions posed by Koizumi will not have any credibility.

Koizumi, who kept largely out of the media spotlight after retiring as lawmaker in 2009, has been speaking out in recent months that Japan should end its reliance on nuclear power. He says the Fukushima nuclear disaster changed his perception of nuclear power as a low-cost and safe source of energy and now says, “There is nothing more costly than nuclear power.” He urges the government to divert the massive energy and money needed to maintain nuclear power in Japan into more investments in the development and promotion of renewable energy sources.

Many of his former Liberal Democratic Party colleagues initially tried to dismiss Koizumi as a retired politician who has nothing to do with the party today. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who served in key Cabinet and LDP positions during Koizumi’s 2001-2006 rule, said it is “irresponsible” to commit to ending nuclear energy at this point. Meanwhile, hopes have emerged within the opposition camp that an alliance with Koizumi — who drew strong popular support while in office — on the zero nuclear agenda could provide them with ammunition against the LDP’s dominance in the Diet.

The political ripple effects — and some criticism over his flip-flop after promoting nuclear power while in office — aside, what seems missing in the controversy are discussions on the very real and pressing issues highlighted by Koizumi. He points to poor prospects for finding a permanent storage site for highly radioactive waste after spent fuel is reprocessed. This problem — for which Japan’s nuclear power industry has long been likened to a “condominium without a toilet” — has been set aside since well before the Fukushima crisis.

Abe has told the Diet that a technology has been established to store such waste in geological layers deep underground. Koizumi says the problem is that despite the existence of this technology, the government has been unable for more than a decade to find a candidate site anywhere in Japan. And this technology, Koizumi says, might be problematic in this quake-prone country — a point that Abe conveniently neglects to mention. Given the safety concerns over nuclear power following the triple meltdowns at the Fukushima plant, it is even more doubtful that a candidate site will ever be found, Koizumi says. Thus radioactive waste will continue to pile up as long as nuclear power plants are operated.

Japan’s nuclear fuel cycle program is at a standstill. Completion of a fuel reprocessing plant in Rokkasho, Aomori Prefecture, has been delayed for years, and the Monju fast-breeder reactor in Tsuruga, Fukui Prefecture, has been idled for much of the time since a sodium leak and fire in 1995. Meanwhile, storage space for spent nuclear fuel from reactors around the country, and in the Rokkasho complex, is nearly 70 percent full.

As Koizumi points out, the myth that nuclear power is cheaper than other sources of energy is thrown in doubt when the expenses for siting nuclear plants, their future decommissioning and waste disposal are included. And on top of this there is the massive cost of dealing with the aftermath of the Fukushima No. 1 meltdowns, including compensation, which far exceeds the financial capacity of its operator, Tokyo Electric Power Co. This is necessitating the injection of a huge amount of taxpayer money.

Abe’s rebuttal is that increased fossil fuel imports for thermal power generation to make up for the nuclear plant shutdowns is costing the nation trillions of yen a year. But his rhetoric does not answer the question whether nuclear power is really the affordable source of energy — as it has long been touted to be by the government — especially after the costs of compensation and decontamination in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear crisis are taken into account.

Abe has vowed to scrap the nuclear phaseout policy of the Democratic Party of Japan-led administration that his LDP ousted from power last year. But the prime minister has yet to present a new vision for the nation’s energy policy — except to say that he would reduce as much as possible Japan’s reliance on nuclear power while maximizing energy-saving efforts and development of alternative energy.

While the future of Japan’s energy policy remains elusive and the Fukushima nuclear crisis is continuing, Abe has been pushing for the sale of Japanese nuclear power plant technology overseas as part of his bid to boost infrastructure exports. When Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and France’s Areva clinched a joint-venture deal in October to build a nuclear power plant with four advanced reactors in Turkey, Abe said Japan “is responsible for helping improve the safety of atomic power in the world by sharing the experience and lessons” from the disaster at the Fukushima plant — whose situation he has described as “under control.”

At home the Abe administration and the LDP are pushing for the restart of some idled nuclear reactors once they have cleared a new set of safety criteria, even though radiation-contaminated water continues to leak from the Fukushima compound nearly 2½ years after the meltdowns.

Abe should lay out a new energy vision that will fully address the doubts about nuclear power raised by Koizumi. His legitimate concerns are likely shared by a large part of the public — a majority of whom, according to media surveys, oppose restart of the idled nuclear reactors. As Koizumi says, only Japan’s political leaders can set the direction for the nation’s energy policy. The Abe administration has an obligation to choose a path that ensures Japan will not have to contend with another nuclear power plant disaster in the future. ”

by The Japan Times


Japan decides to scrap trouble-plagued Monju prototype reactor — Nikkei Asian Review

” TOKYO (Kyodo) — The Japanese government formally decided Wednesday to decommission the Monju prototype fast-breeder nuclear reactor in western Japan’s Fukui Prefecture, which has barely operated over the past two decades despite its envisioned key role in the country’s nuclear fuel recycling policy.

The decision in a ministerial meeting Wednesday, concluding a process that has included discussion of Japan’s overall fast-reactor development policy by a government panel, comes despite failure to obtain local support for the plan.

The government has invested more than 1 trillion yen ($8.5 billion) in research and development for the reactor, having originally hoped it would serve as a linchpin of nuclear fuel recycling efforts as it was designed to produce more plutonium than it consumes while generating electricity.

With resource-poor Japan relying on uranium imports to power its conventional reactors, the government will continue to develop fast reactors in pursuit of a nuclear fuel cycle in which Japan seeks to reprocess spent fuel and reuse plutonium and uranium, extracted through reprocessing.

But Monju’s fate is sure to prompt further public scrutiny of the fuel cycle policy, with many nuclear reactors left idled after the 2011 Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster. The public also remains wary of nuclear power generation after the disaster.

With the facility’s decommissioning, and the accompanying loss of jobs and subsidies, the central government also risks damaging its rapport with Fukui, which hosts a number of other currently shuttered nuclear plants along the Sea of Japan coast.

The government has calculated it will cost at least 375 billion yen over 30 years to fully decommission Monju. It plans to remove the spent nuclear fuel from the reactor by 2022 and finish dismantling the facility in 2047.

Monju achieved sustained nuclear reactions, technically called criticality, in 1994. But it experienced a series of problems including a leakage of sodium coolant the following year and has been largely mothballed for the subsequent two decades.

Restarting operations at the plant would have cost at least 540 billion yen, according to government forecasts.

“We will decommission Monju given that it would take a considerable amount of time and expense to resume its operations,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told Wednesday’s meeting.

“The nuclear fuel cycle is at the core of our energy policy,” Economy, Trade and Industry Minister Hiroshige Seko told reporters after the meeting. His ministry will take over from the science ministry in overseeing the development of more practical fast reactors.

“We will make full use of the highly valuable knowledge and expertise acquired at Monju as we move forward with fast reactor development…first by concentrating on creating a strategic roadmap,” Seko said.

Earlier Wednesday, the central government held a consultation meeting with Fukui Gov. Issei Nishikawa, who told reporters afterward that he remains opposed to the scrapping of the facility.

Nishikawa said in the meeting that decommissioning cannot begin without the approval of both the prefecture and the city of Tsuruga, where Monju is based.

“The governor told us today…that he wants a more thorough explanation of the specific mechanisms by which decommissioning will be carried out,” Seko said after the decision was made.

“We will create opportunities for dialogue with the local area.”

Nishikawa had said at a similar meeting Monday that the central government had not given enough justification for decommissioning Monju or considered the plant’s operation history sufficiently.

He has also argued that the Japan Atomic Energy Agency, which operates Monju, is incapable of safely dismantling the reactor.

A nuclear regulatory body recommended last year that the JAEA be disqualified from operating the facility following revelations of mismanagement, including a massive number of equipment inspection failures in 2012.

Science minister Hirokazu Matsuno instructed JAEA President Toshio Kodama on Wednesday to come up with a decommissioning plan by around April next year. The government has said it plans to take third-party technical opinions into account in working out how the decommissioning will take place. ”

by Nikkei Asian Review


Scrapping of Monju would mean disposal of 760 tons of radioactive sodium, MOX fuel — The Japan Times

” About 760 tons of radioactive sodium remain in the piping and other equipment of the trouble-prone Monju prototype fast-breeder nuclear reactor, which may be ordered decommissioned, it was learned Sunday.

It has not been decided how to dispose of the radioactive sodium, said sources at the Japan Atomic Energy Agency, the operator of Monju. If the government decides to scrap the reactor, sodium disposal is expected to be a difficult challenge.

Sodium is used as a coolant at Monju, while water is used at conventional nuclear reactors. Sodium is a tricky chemical element that burns intensely if it comes into contact with air or water.

According to the agency, the Monju reactor has some 1,670 tons of sodium. Radioactive substances are contained in 760 tons of the total as it circulates inside the reactor vessel.

The Monju reactor needs to be drained of the sodium if it is to be demolished.

Radioactive and chemically active sodium has to be sealed in containers. There is no precedent of radioactive sodium disposal in Japan.

“We plan to consider the method of disposal if a decision is made to decommission (Monju),” an official said.

Monju, located in Tsuruga, Fukui Prefecture, is a core facility in Japan’s nuclear fuel cycle policy because, if running properly, the reactor produces more plutonium than it consumes.

More than ¥1 trillion, mostly from state budgets, has been invested in Monju. But the 280,000-kw reactor has operated for only 250 days since it reached criticality, or a self-sustained nuclear fission chain reaction, for the first time in April 1994, due to a raft of problems, including maintenance flaws, a sodium leak and fire and attempted coverup.

In November 2015, the Nuclear Regulation Authority advised the government to replace the operator of Monju. The government is carrying out a thorough review of the Monju project, including the possibility of decommissioning the reactor.

The disposal of the mixed-oxide, or MOX, fuel used at Monju is another significant issue. The amount of MOX fuel, a blend of uranium and plutonium recycled from spent nuclear fuel, that needs to be disposed of is estimated at 21 tons, but Japan is not equipped to carry out its disposal.

One option is to consign the disposal to a foreign country and receive the return of uranium and plutonium after the processing, along with radioactive waste.

But the agency’s cost estimate of ¥300 billion for decommissioning Monju does not include the expense of the overseas entrustment of MOX fuel disposal.

The agency aims to entrust France with the disposal of some 64 tons of MOX fuel that has been used at its Fugen advanced converter reactor, but no contract has been concluded. The Fugen reactor, also in Tsuruga, is slated to be decommissioned.

Spent MOX fuel contains larger amounts of highly toxic radioactive substances than spent uranium from conventional reactors.

The disposal of radioactive sodium and MOX fuel at Monju is emerging as an additional and difficult challenge for the government at a time when the final disposal site has not been decided for high-level radioactive waste from nuclear plants across Japan. ”



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. ”


One-third of safety cameras at Monju reactor broken — The Japan Times

” TSURUGA, FUKUI PREF. – About a third of the 180 monitoring cameras installed at the experimental Monju fast-breeder reactor were found broken during a safety inspection last month, a source familiar with the matter said, renewing concerns about safety management at the Japan Atomic Energy Agency, which runs it.

In May 2013, the Nuclear Regulation Authority effectively shuttered the reactor on the Sea of Japan coast in Fukui Prefecture after discovering that over 10,000 pieces of equipment had not been properly inspected.

The broken cameras are among 180 that were installed to monitor the area around coolant pipes in a secondary cooling system. They were installed after a major fire in 1995 caused by a sodium coolant leak led to a renovation in 2005. The cameras were put into operation in 2007.

Around a third were broken when the NRA inspected Monju last month — and some had been so for more than 18 months, the source said.

JAEA, which operates Monju, said it was aware of the problem but could not replace the cameras with the same type because they are no longer being made.

“We left (them) as they were because we ran out of backups,” a JAEA official reportedly told an NRA official when asked about the cameras. “We will replace them by November.”

The lax safety management culture at Monju has baffled many, including officials at other nuclear plant operators. “Leaving broken monitoring cameras unattended is out of the question,” one utility official said.

Last month, JAEA said it would extend its intensive management reform effort by six months through March. ”


Japan and France to promote fast breeder reactors — Enformable Nuclear News; Falsified inspections suspected at Monju fast-breeder reactor — The Japan Times

Enformable: ” Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and French President Francois Hollande met during a summit meeting at the Elysee Palace in Paris on Monday and agreed that the two countries will work to promote the research and development of fast breeder reactors.

According to Japanese sources with knowledge of the agreement, Japan will provide technical assistance on France’s fast breeder reactor development projects.

France has also demanded that Japan use the Monju fast breeder reactor to test fuel for France’s Advanced Sodium Technological Reactor for Industrial Demonstration (ASTRID). The ASTRID reactor concept is the same as the Monju reactor in Japan.

There have been serious questions raised about whether the Monju reactor will be fit to use for research purposes, let alone commercial use. Japan has spent nearly 10 trillion Yen on the project, and in return the Monju reactor has been kept offline for most of the past 19 years due to repeated failures , safety problems and organizational issues.

Currently, the Monju reactor is shut down while the operator, Japan Atomic Energy Agency (JAEA) continues organizational reforms and improves its safety management. To meet France’s demands, the Japanese government has agreed to accelerate the reforms at the JAEA and get the Monju reactor to pass safety checks by the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA).

After the project is underway, the JAEA, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, AREVA, and others will collaborate on joint research together to create the basic design of the ASTRID reactor. France is working to complete the basic design for the ASTRID reactor by 2019, and hopes to put it online in 2025.

Currently all nuclear reactors in Japan are offline, but one of Japan’s hurdles to restarting its nuclear reactors is the decision of what to do with all of the highly radioactive nuclear waste generated by commercial operations.

Japan does not have a repository for storing nuclear waste underground and is hoping that fast breeder reactors will reduce the amount of radioactive waste produced at its commercial reactors. Others are concerned that while fast-breeder reactors may reduce the amount of radioactive waste overall, they still produce plutonium in greater quantities than commercial reactors, and experts are worried that may present a serious proliferation risk. ”


The Japan Times: ” The operator of the Monju prototype fast-breeder reactor in Fukui Prefecture is suspected of falsifying an inspection report after regulators later found new pieces of equipment there that hadn’t been inspected, Nuclear Regulation Authority sources said Thursday.

The experimental reactor in Tsuruga is run by the Japan Atomic Energy Agency. It is designed to use extracted plutonium and uranium to produce more fuel than it burns while generating electricity. The problem-ridden reactor, however, was effectively banned from operating last May after its lax safety inspections were revealed.

The discovery and the JAEA’s alleged failure to report it to the regulators are all but certain to keep the reactor from operating for some time, although the aging Monju project is expected to stay alive under the government’s revamped energy policy.

In November 2012, Monju reactor equipment was found not to have been inspected in about 10,000 cases.

JAEA said in its report last September that while it had failed to inspect reactor equipment in about 14,000 cases, it finished inspecting all of the pieces, roughly 47,500 in all, that were subject to the investigation, including those that had not previously been inspected.

But when the regulators inspected about 80 pieces of reactor equipment last month, at least nine that were related to the Monju reactor’s secondary cooling circuit had not been inspected by JAEA, the sources said. And JAEA failed to report it.

The operator has acknowledged its failure to report, according to the sources. A JAEA official declined to comment on the matter.

The sources said JAEA also made improper corrections to inspection records in more than 100 sections, a deviation from its internal regulations.

While the regulators had planned to inspect 700 pieces of equipment last month, they stopped doing so after inspecting about 80 of them, because they found many that hadn’t been inspected and many corrections in JAEA’s inspection records.

The Monju project has been regarded as central to achieving the government’s long-sought nuclear fuel cycle, which aims to reprocess spent fuel and reuse the extracted plutonium and uranium as reactor fuel.

But the reactor has remained largely offline since first achieving criticality in 1994 due to a series of problems, casting doubt on the project’s viability. ”