Japanese citizens' attempts to seek protection from the legal system received a blow today. The Supreme Court overturned an earlier Nagoya High Court verdict, which had invalidated the license approval for the Monju fast breeder reactor in Tsuruga, Fukui Prefecture.
The Supreme Court failed to address the basic safety issues and rejected the citizens' argument on the basis of an extemely narrow interpretation of its powers to pass judgment on technological matters. After twenty years of brave struggle, the citizens have been snubbed by a totally unreasonable decision from a cold and distant Supreme Court.
CNIC expects that the government will use this to justify its fuel cycle and plutonium policies. However, just because the Supreme Court has endorsed the original license approval, that doesn't mean that Monju will ever become fully operational. There are still huge technical and obstacles to be overcome and it is highly doubtful whether fast breeder reactors can ever be economically competitive.
Furthermore, if fast breeders ever become a reality, we will be living in a plutonium economy. That means we will be living in a police state, because the plutonium required to operate just one commercial sized fast breeder reactor will be enough to produce hundreds of nuclear weapons.
The 280 MW Monju prototype fast breeder reactor is located in Tsuruga, Fukui Prefecture. It has been shut down since 8 December 1995 because of a sodium leak and fire accident. Preparations are currently underway for modifications designed to rectify various safety defects identified since this accident. These modifications are scheduled to begin in September this year and will continue until around February 2007. According to Japan Nuclear Cycle Development Institute (JNC), the owner of Monju, the plan is for operations to recommence around February 2008.
The lawsuit against the Monju prototype fast breeder reactor was originally filed by citizens in September 1985. Since then it has been back and forth between the Fukui District Court and the Nagoya High Court, with the status before today's decision being that the Nagoya High Court had adjudicated in January 2003 in favor of the 32 citizens who filed the suit. Under this decision the license approval was found to be invalid. The then Power Reactor and Nuclear Fuel Development Corporation (now JNC) applied for a licence in 1980. Approval was granted in 1983 after safety investigations by the then Science and Technology Agency and the Nuclear Safety Agency. For more details about this case, see the following link:
Monju uses plutonium as fuel and sodium as coolant. Also neutrons which escape from the reactor core are absorbed by a blanket of depleted uranium packed around the core. These neutrons convert some of this uranium to plutonium. These three characteristics of the fast breeder reactor give rise to a number of problems, including the following: (1) plutonium is a potential material for nuclear weapons; (2) the high temperature molten sodium circulating within the reactor is explosive if it comes in contact with water.
The citizens' major arguments against Monju related to safety. Three major defects formed the basis of their claim that the license approval was invalid. These were as follows:
1. The sodium leak and fire in 1995 revealed that the Monju approval failed to meet the required safety standards.
2. The approval did not take into account the possibility of a high temperature rupture of pipes in the steam generator. Such a rupture would cause steam to come into contact with sodium, resulting in an explosion.
3. The approval did not give adequate consideration to the possibility of a runaway nuclear reaction leading to the reactor core breaking up and releasing its radioactive contents.
There were also legal technicalities that needed to be argued. These revolved in particular around the issue of whether flaws in the approval process were 'clear' and 'serious' and whether the court was technically competent to make a judgment. The Nagoya High Court had ruled that the flaws didn't have to be 'clear', that they were 'serious' and that it was competent to make the necessary judgment, given the serious flaws in the safety review process. However, the Supreme Court took the view that, except where the administration's judgment regarding the safety of the basic design was not reasonable, the administration's judgment should be respected.
The following link leads to a document produced by Green Action with answers to frequently asked questions about Monju:
Contact: Philip White