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Friday, Dec. 9, 2005

SAFETY CONCERNS REMAIN

Over decade after accident, Monju may be reborn


Staff writer

TSURUGA, Fukui Pref. -- Ten years after a sodium leak and fire shut down the Monju prototype fast-breeder reactor, plans are moving forward to have it operational by 2008.

News photo
The Monju experimental fast-breeder reactor in Tsuruga, Fukui Prefecture, has been closed for a decade after it suffered a sodium leak and fire that officials tried to conceal.

On Dec. 8, 1995, liquid sodium coolant leaked from a pipe inside the reactor plant, which had begun supplying power in August of that year.

Dramatic video footage that was first covered up and later released by Monju officials showed the leak led to a fire that caused extensive damage. Sodium burns when it comes into contact with air.

Revelations of negligence and the coverup by Monju officials led to a strong public outcry, which forced a partial reorganization of the atomic power industry and prompted Tokyo to pass laws to strengthen quality control and safety steps for nuclear plants.

At the time, Monju was being operated by the now defunct Power Reactor and Nuclear Fuel Development Corp.

One of the main problems the accident exposed was a lack of timely communication between Monju officials and Tsuruga, Fukui and central government officials.

Today, a new system has been development whereby officials from all three levels of government along with nuclear power experts and Monju representatives would analyze information about an accident and coordinate a response through a Tsuruga-based center.

Tsuruga city officials have said they are prepared to respond to a major disaster at Monju, which sits on the Sea of Japan coast, about 10 km northwest of the city center.

"About 98 percent of Tsuruga's roughly 70,000 residents have an emergency cable TV channel in their homes that broadcasts information related to nuclear power plants," said Toshiyuki Mukaiyama, a city spokesman. "No matter how small the incident, residents can tune to emergency channel 9, which is operated by the city, and learn what happened."

The city also has evacuation plans in case of a disaster at the reactor.

"Tsuruga households have been given information on 32 refugee centers where they should go if there is an accident. They can get this information both on (CATV) channel 9 and through 26 public address towers set up inside the city limits," said Fumiyoshi Kato, an official in the municipal nuclear power safety section.

The evacuation areas are mostly elementary schools and public halls. However, Kato said they do not contain much in the way of emergency supplies.

But one pressing issue is how to deal with residents who try to flee the area after an accident.

Antinuclear activists have long claimed that large steel gates on several roads leading into Tsuruga would be closed to keep people who might have been exposed to radiation from leaving.

Both Kato and Tatsuji Wada, an official in the city's disaster prevention section, deny the charge.

"Those gates were built in order to control traffic flow in the event of a heavy rainstorm or snowfall," Wada claimed.

However, the gates are not controlled by the city but by the prefecture, and Kato said it would be up to Fukui to decide if they should be lowered.

Local officials expressed confidence that a Monju disaster could be dealt with effectively.

Meanwhile, the road is clear for the reactor to be restarted. The Supreme Court handed down a decision in May upholding the government's decision to build the reactor, turning down a two-decade lawsuit by local residents who claim Monju has basic design flaws. However, questions remain about the plant's safety.

"What the Supreme Court didn't say was that Monju was safe to operate. The decision failed to address serious doubts about whether safety systems will actually work as designed," the Tokyo-based Citizens' Nuclear Information Center said in a statement following the court's decision.

There are also some fears that the material used at the reactor might be used for weapons production.

If Monju begins operating and burns either plutonium or, more likely, uranium-plutonium mixed oxide (MOX) fuel, which has plutonium as a byproduct, it raises the possibility that the plutonium could be stolen or diverted to make weapons.

Counterterrorism training at nuclear-power facilities involving police, nuclear-power officials and the affected municipalities will be held nationwide beginning next year.

But international concern is mounting over what operation of a nuclear fuel reprocessing plant in Rokkasho, Aomori Prefecture, might mean for controlling weapons-grade nuclear material. The plant is now scheduled to go into operation in 2007.

Japan finds itself under international pressure over Monju as well.

At a meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency meeting in September in Vienna, Alain Bugat, chairman of the French Atomic Energy Commission, proposed to Akira Shichijo, senior vice minister of the Cabinet Office, that France and Japan jointly use Monju once it begins operation.

Some segments of the nonproliferation community have welcomed the French proposal, saying it is a way for Japan to show the international community it is serious about strengthening its nonproliferation commitments.

Meanwhile, Japan's nuclear-power industry continues to see Monju as a cornerstone of the nation's energy policy.

"Monju's operation will restart Japan's fast-breeder program, which forms an important part of Japan's overall nuclear energy strategy for the 21st century," said Shunsuke Kondo, who heads the Atomic Energy Commission.

"With a fast-breeder reactor program, we can reduce dependency on fossil fuels and provide clean energy that is much cheaper than other forms, such as solar or wind."

The government in 1983 approved the construction of the Monju reactor by the government-affiliated Power Reactor and Nuclear Fuel Development Corp. Its successor, the Japan Atomic Energy Agency, created in October 2005 by integrating two government-backed nuclear-related institutions, has taken over the Monju project.

After two decades of unsuccessfully trying to get Monju up and running, and 10 years after the accident forced the plant to shut down, people opposed to Monju say that, beyond the safety and proliferation concerns, Japan's fast-breeder reactor program is nothing more than another failed government public works project.

Monju, which is supposed to be the first of many fast-breeder reactors, was built at a cost of 600 billion yen and will require billions more before it goes fully online.

"The fast breeder program is a white elephant. After 45 years in development, it doesn't light a single light bulb. We must end this program and move on to better things," said Aileen Mioko Smith, of the antinuclear group Green Action Japan.



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