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Another Fukushima Casualty - Japan's Fast Breeder Reactor Program

The 11 March 2011 earthquake and tsunami that effectively destroyed Tokyo Electric Power Company’s six-reactor Fukushima Daichi complex have claimed another victim, Japan’s fast breeder reactor program.

Fukushima’s effect on Japan’s atomic energy program has not had the consequences of a nuclear blast, but more the relentless drip of acid rain, slowly eroding public confidence in the country’s nuclear power industry, which last month saw 49 of the country’s 54 nuclear power plant (NPP) reactors idled. The figure is hardly insignificant, as the nuclear power plants (NPPS) collectively generated more than 47,000 megawatts, nearly 30 percent of the country’s electrical needs.

Now another nail has apparently been driven into Japan’s civilian nuclear future.

On 23 February a Japan Atomic Energy Commission panel of experts reviewing Japan's nuclear fuel cycle production policy in the wake of the Fukushima debacle, while acknowledging that a fuel cycle involving a fast-breeder reactor has some advantages, concluded that for Japan it cannot be considered as a realistic option for the next two to three decades due to technological considerations.

The review is effectively a death sentence for Japan’s Monju troubled $12 billion experimental fast-breeder reactor in Tsuruga, Fukui Prefecture, intended to reprocess spent nuclear reactor fuel to produce plutonium that can subsequently be recycled and reused to generate electricity. Japan had high hopes that the fast-breeder reactor program could close the loop on its nuclear fuel cycle, allowing it to reuse, recycle and produce fresh fuel for its 54 reactors. The subcommittee’s report effectively ends Japan’s hopes of using nuclear fuel on a near-endless cycle.

The Japan Atomic Energy Commission subcommittee commented in a draft document summarizing its discussions that the country’s best option during the next 20-30 years instead of reprocessing spent nuclear fuel would be instead to recycle plutonium-uranium mixed oxide (MOX) reactor fuel. The subcommittee recommended that spent nuclear fuel be treated in the "once-through" cycle, where after it is burned in a nuclear reactor the spent fuel is buried after being used in nuclear reactors just one time rather than recycled.

The subcommittee members’ viewpoints were varied, not unanimous, as Chairman Tatsujiro Suzuki told reporters that he believed that fast-breeder reactors have "extremely advantageous characteristics from a long-term viewpoint." According to the subcommittee’s report, the "once-through" cycle has high economic efficiency, while MOX recycling has high efficiency of uranium use.

Given Japanese public opinion sensitivity about nuclear power in light of Fukushima, every aspect of Japan’s civilian nuclear power program is more closely scrutinized than in the past, and the Monju fast-breeder reactor has had its share of problems. Construction started on the sodium-cooled, MOX-fuelled Monju fast-breeder reactor in 1986, with the reactor going critical in April 1994, but shortly after coming online the facility suffered a severe fire. Japanese officials subsequently attempted to cover up the accident, with the result that the Monju fast-breeder reactor was kept offline until 6 May 2010.

Exemplifying its problems, as of June 2011, the Monju fast-breeder reactor has only generated electricity for one hour since going critical in 1984.

Adding to the irony, Fukui Prefecture is Japan’s most pro-nuclear province, housing 14 nuclear reactors. Fukushima Prefecture held a distant second place with 10 reactors. But Monju’s effective mothballing ends Tokyo’s vision of using fast-breeder reactors to produce more nuclear fuel than they burn, allowing for a cycle in which new nuclear fuel is created by the fast-breeder reactor, extracted, reprocessed and used anew by other NPPs.

Japan Atomic Energy Agency fast-breeder program Director General Satoru Kondo commented, "It was supposed to be the dream reactor, powering Japan for 100 or 200 years. I never thought it would take this long."

But dreams remain exactly that – dreams, with the effective loss of Monju, Japan’s nuclear power industry is back to square one after more than two decades and $12 billion invested – importing nuclear fuel for its increasing contentious nuclear power generation program.

So, Japan’s NPP program, for which Monju was hoped nearly to eliminate costly uranium imports, is, like Japan’s other, more conventional sources of power generation, yet one source of hard currency expenditure.

Dreams die hard, some more and expensively so than others.

By. John C.K. Daly of Oilprice.com

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  • Susan on February 27 2012 said:
    The more Japan will plan to deal with nuclear power the more it will drag itself to the loads of hazards. Japanese government needs to realize that it will always be having massive natural disasters like frequent earthquakes, tsunamis etc. and therefore it should not think of something like nuclear power which is never environment friendly.

    I just found this new study, produced independent organization Datapoke, concerning the estimated concentrations of radionuclides at upper altitudes. The report indicates concentrations orders of magnitude higher than those physically recorded at near surface level.


    The report includes dispersion images but I can’t figure out how to post them here. Can anyone post the dispersion images?

  • nuclear power proponent on February 27 2012 said:
    I think what the Japanese should do is to ask GE to propose a solution to the Japanses nuclear waste problem. I think GE has one. I have read of a proposal they have to separate nuclear waste in spent fuel rods into a mixture of plutonium plus actinides and trans uranic elements, depleted uranium, and fission products. "Burn" ie fission the plutonium plus actinides and transuric elements in a GE Prisim reactor or possibly take over Monju and make it into a sort of GE Prisim reactor. "Burn" the depleted uraniium in some sort of heavy water reactor the likes of which exists in Canada ie CANDU. Turn the fission products into glass, ceramic or carbide and dump them somewhere for the next 300 years. If water flows through the waste dump that isn't a big problem as the bad stuff is tied up and water can't leach it out. I have read on the internet that GE is proposing to the British Government to do something along these lines now somewhere in Britain. It would be easy enough for the Japanese to do this because GE is in partership with Hitachi which is a Japanese firm with deep connections to the government and society.
  • Fred Banks on February 28 2012 said:
    I think that we need a reality check here.

    The problem at Fukushima was basically the tsunami, and of course the reactor was in the wrong place. All of that will be taken care of though when the GEN 3 reactors are installed AND TUNED UP.

    The business with the breeder is a different matter. As the guy in Vienna told me - in the story that I have told at least a thousand times - the Japanese decision makers consider conventional (Gen 2) reactors on the same level as the Stone Age and dinosaurs. What they want is the breeder, and when the time comes they will have it.

    They will have it and so will everybody else, regardless of what they tell themselves and their significant others. Personally, I think that we should do everything possible to avoid it for the time being, because I don't trust the intelligence of our political masters, but what I think doesn't make much difference. Of course, for friends of the breeder you will probably have to wait about ten years...probably.
  • darklite on March 06 2012 said:
    @nuclear power proponent: hate to tell you this, but these proposals were on the table as fare back as the seventies! The nuclear power industry has found it far more cost-effective to kick 55-gallon drums off barges in the late of night. And though your suggestion is appreciated, it's a bit dated. Not unlike the Monju reactor, they'll experiment-around the issue that this technology SHOULD NEVER HAVE BEEN DEPLOYED within our planet's biosphere. Some much for "too cheap to meter". Now, the world's embarked on the greatest financial drain in human history...FUKUSHIMA!

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