Summer Quarterly 2018
By Kelly Lundeen
The Monju fast-breeder nuclear reactor in central Japan is the latest to join the long line of failed experiments to prove functionality or safety of breeder technology. Even though Monju has been largely shutdown since an accident in 1995, proponents of breeder reactor technology held out hope that the project could be an example of a reactor that would be able to power the world into the future with nuclear while recycling waste from other nuclear reactors. Monju carried on until 2016 when it was slated for decommissioning after other fast breeder projects in the US, United Kingdom, Germany and France threw in the towel. On March 28, 2018 Japan’s Nuclear Regulation Authority put the final nail in the coffin of Monju when they approved a plan for decommissioning.
Construction of Monju began in 1986 after 20 years of planning. Less than a year after going online in 1994 there was a fire from a leak of sodium coolant that led to its shutdown and a scandalous cover-up. After the accident it remained mostly inoperative, with concerns about its safety resulting from failures of equipment inspections. In 2016 it was discovered that several inspections had been omitted completely. That same year, due to safety issues coupled with cost overruns, the Japanese government made the decision to decommission. Investment in the failed project ended up costing the people of Japan nearly $9.5 billion US and now will cost them another $3.5 billion to decommission.
Under the plan to decommission 530 radioactive fuel rods will be extracted by 2023 with the remainder of the facility to be demolished by 2047. However there is no process yet designated for removal of the 760 tons of radioactive sodium coolant. There is also no destination for the radioactive waste fuel rods beyond placing them in an onsite storage pool.
Monju was a breeder reactor, meaning that it was supposed to extend the capacity to produce electricity by running the used fuel through the reactor to release more of its energy. It would “breed” by producing more fissile fuel products, plutonium-239 or uranium- 233, than were used as “starter” fuel in the form of uranium-238 or thorium-232. The hope for breeder technology was that the world could continue to rely on nuclear energy long after the world’s supply of oil and uranium, used in conventional reactors and once thought to be scarce, is depleted. The other, more noble, goal of the technology was that it could be used to rid the world of radioactive waste by recycling the waste plutonium from conventional reactors.
In over 60 years of development breeder reactor experiments have been plagued with problems. There has not been a successful example after tens of billions of dollars of research. Many breeder reactors, such as Monju, used liquid sodium as a coolant, an extremely dangerous chemical that ignites on contact with air and explodes on contact with water. “Despite its theoretical attractiveness in converting non-fissile into fissile material, the breeder reactor has turned out to be a far tougher technology than thermal reactors. Unfortunately the dream of breeder reactors has remained a theory. The magic of fuel multiplication has not yet been realized on any meaningful scale.” Written nearly 20 years ago by Arjun Makhijani and Scott Saleska in The Nuclear Power Deception, this assertion has only been affirmed. Russia, India and China continue to invest in development of breeder reactors. Joyo, Japan’s other fast breeder reactor, is currently non-operational.