In November 2015, the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) submitted its recommendation concerning the Monju prototype fast-breeder reactor (FBR) to the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT). In the recommendation, the nuclear watchdog maintained that the state-run Japan Atomic Energy Agency (JAEA) is “not fit to operate” Monju safely, and called on the ministry that oversees the Monju project to find another operator to replace JAEA, or, if a suitable party cannot be found, to carry out a fundamental review of Monju’s future to reduce the risk of a severe nuclear accident. NRA then demanded that the ministry respond to this recommendation within six months.
In December 2015, MEXT set up a panel headed by former education minister Akito Arima to re-examine Monju’s future (hereafter referred to as the “panel”). However, the panel’s discussions were based on the assumption that the Monju project should be maintained. In reaction to this, a citizens’ study committee on Monju, commissioned by the Japan Congress Against A- and H-Bombs and Fukui Prefecture Citizens Against Nuclear Power, was organized in January 2016. The chairman of this committee (hereafter referred to as the “committee.”) is Hideyuki Ban, Co-Director of Citizens’ Nuclear Information Center (CNIC). The committee held discussions in and after February 2016, and eventually announced on May 9, a recommendation that is comprised of two points and eight particulars that support the recommendation (the entire text is available at www.cnic.jp/6982)
There are two main points in this recommendation: (1) Because it is impossible to find a new operator for Monju, the attempt to search for such an organization is just a waste of time, so (2) Monju should be decommissioned.
With regard to (1), the recommendation said it is necessary to verify the current situation where JAEA has organizational problems that are diminishing its ability to ensure operational safety. It pointed out that the science ministry’s panel discussed Monju’s future on the assumption that the reactor would be maintained for good, and that there are many problems involved in the search for a new operator. The recommendation confirmed the Monju supporters’ claim that JAEA is the only organization capable of operating the reactor, and referred to a plan to divide JAEA’s Monju department into two, the operation department and the research and development department. It then noted that the possible new operator of Monju would not pass the screening of the nuclear watchdog, NRA, and concluded that it is totally unlikely that a new operator could be found to replace JAEA.
Concerning (2), the recommendation said that Monju is a fundamentally dangerous nuclear reactor, and that the deterioration of the reactor equipment and materials resulting from the long-term suspension of its operation, and the retirement of many reactor designers and other related officials, would make it difficult for the reactor operator to take appropriate measures at the time of a nuclear accident.
The recommendation then pointed out that Monju was originally hailed as a “dream nuclear reactor” capable of producing nuclear fuel while generating power, but the dream did not come true, and instead, it will be given a seemingly unachievable role of reducing the amount and the toxic level of radioactive waste.
According to the recommendation, Japan has reprocessed spent nuclear fuel to separate plutonium with an aim to use it as the fast-breeder reactor fuel. Now the government insists that the reprocessing is necessary to reduce the amount and the toxic level of radioactive waste. Plutonium, however, can be used for the production of nuclear weapons, and Japan already has a stockpile of plutonium amounting to 47.8 tons. It is, therefore, highly unlikely that this reprocessing policy will win the understanding of the international community.
Taking all of these factors into consideration, the recommendation concluded that Japan has no choice but to decommission the Monju reactor.
After announcing this recommendation, the committee sent it to MEXT, NRA and other related ministries and agencies of the government. It called on them to send back their replies by the end of May but the panel has received no replies thus far. The panel plans to demand that the government create opportunities for an exchange of views with the committee.