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Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Monju costs far surpass usual nukes

Trouble-prone reactor has rung up far higher tab than initially planned

Kyodo

If the troubled Monju prototype fast breeder reactor project continues, its costs will swell to more than ¥1.4 trillion and its power generation costs will be ¥10,000 per kwh, roughly 1,000 times greater than a regular reactor, according to data compiled by Kyodo News.

News photo
Does it have the future?: The prototype fast breeder reactor Monju sits idle in Tsuruga, Fukui Prefecture, last November. KYODO

Construction of the reactor in Tsuruga, Fukui Prefecture, started in 1985 as part of the government's goal to establish a nuclear fuel cycle to make use of spent nuclear fuel at conventional atomic plants that run on uranium. Monju uses a uranium and plutonium mix known as MOX as fuel.

The facility operated by the government-affiliated Power Reactor and Nuclear Fuel Development Corp. first reached criticality — where a chain reaction of nuclear fission is sustained — in 1994.

But sodium, used as a coolant, leaked during its test run in December 1995. Around 640 kg of leaked sodium reacted with air and sparked a fire, forcing a prolonged suspension.

The operator was also caught trying to cover the incident up. Workers made a false report about and truncated video footage of the accident.

The operator was revamped into the Japan Nuclear Cycle Development Institute, which was subsequently merged with the Japan Atomic Energy Research Institute in 2005 to create the Japan Atomic Energy Agency.

The prototype reactor, designed to produce more fuel than it consumes, also faced other problems, prompting further delays in its restart initially set for March 2008.

In an application for a permit to build the reactor filed in 1980, the government estimated ¥322 billion in construction costs.

A probe by the Board of Audit found that total costs spent through fiscal 2010 came to around ¥1.08 trillion.

On June 12, the science and technology ministry announced Monju would require an additional ¥160 billion to ¥170 billion over 10 years if it is reactivated.

The Japan Nuclear Cycle Development Institute calculated in 2002 that decommissioning Monju and disposing of the radioactive materials would cost ¥174 billion.

Adding these figures up, the sum will top ¥1.4 trillion.

The reactor, meanwhile, generated a total of 102.3 million kwh between August 1995 and the sodium leak. The unit cost will thus be ¥10,000 per kwh, around 1,000 times greater than the current power generation cost of nuclear power stations, estimated at ¥9 per kwh, and around 300 times greater than solar power's roughly ¥30.

The colossal development cost of the Monju project was a hot topic at a meeting of the Lower House Committee on Audit and Oversight of Administration as well as the government's council on administrative reforms last year.

The science and technology ministry has appropriated ¥17.5 billion in what it said was the minimum needed for maintenance, saying it will not seek to restart the reactor this fiscal year.

The government has repeatedly been putting off the target date to commercialize a fast breeder reactor. Under a long-term plan formulated in 1967, the target was around 1985. Under the current nuclear framework worked out in 2005, it is set at around 2050.

The Japan Atomic Energy Commission is apologetic and suggests no checks were imposed on Monju's costs.

"Over the years, a substantial amount of funds has been poured (into the project), but it has not yet been put to practical use," says a nuclear fuel cycle report adopted June 21 by the commission.

The government has said it will seek to rely less on nuclear power in light of the Fukushima crisis. The costly Monju will likely be a test case to see if it is serious about such a position.



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