The government officially decided on Dec. 21 to decommission the troubled Monju prototype fast-breeder reactor and instead develop a new fast reactor to maintain Japan’s nuclear fuel recycling program.

The decision can be likened to a theater director determined not to declare an end to production despite dropping the spendthrift leading actor whose scandals have prevented him from performing on stage.

Fearing possible repercussions from the termination of the production, the director keeps promising to stage the play "sometime in the future." The director refuses to say clearly when the play will be staged because there is no actor in sight who can substitute for the dismissed one.

But this policy decision cannot be simply laughed away as an absurd piece of political theatrics. An enormous amount of taxpayer money has already been poured into Monju, and the government is poised to spend a huge additional amount to deal with its demise.

There is no doubt the Monju project has been a costly failure. The government cannot be allowed to put the debacle behind it by simply scrapping the experimental reactor and having the science and technology minister offer to return part of his salary for several months.

Despite an injection of more than 1 trillion yen ($8.5 billion) of public funds into the project, the reactor has been mostly out of operation for the 20-odd years since it first reached criticality in 1994. Decommissioning the reactor will require an additional expenditure of nearly 400 billion yen, according to a government estimate.

An exhaustive postmortem for the project to identify the causes of its failure is in order.

The government should not waste any more money or make unreasonable efforts to keep its nuclear fuel recycling program alive.

The government has made the questionable claim that “a certain amount of useful knowledge” has been acquired through the Monju project that can be used to develop a new fast reactor. Instead, the government should confront the grim reality of this undertaking.

Four years ago, the science and technology ministry submitted a report on technological achievements in the Monju project to the Japan Atomic Energy Commission.

The report included estimated levels of achievements, weighted in terms of importance, in different areas.

The degree of achievement, expressed as a percentage, for equipment and system tests was, for instance, 16 percent. The figure for reactor core tests and irradiation issues was 31 percent, while that for operation and maintenance was nil. The overall achievement level was estimated at 16 percent.

Does the government believe this poor track record justifies its claim that “a certain amount of useful knowledge” has been obtained?

The clear moral of the Monju saga is that a huge price must be paid for failing to take a hard look at the reality and underestimating risks and problems.

Serious concerns about the cost-effectiveness of a nuclear fuel recycling program and the risk of nuclear proliferation from accumulating stockpiles of plutonium led many countries to give up developing fast-breeder reactors. Japan, however, bucked the trend and embarked on building Monju.

When sodium leaks occurred overseas, Japanese proponents insisted that such an accident would not happen at the Monju reactor.

When a sodium leak accident did occur at Monju in 1995, they made false announcements and covered up vital information.

Monju resumed operations in 2010 after a long hiatus, but mechanical trouble soon caused it to be shut down again.

Eventually, the ability and competence of the Monju operator, Japan Atomic Energy Agency, was called into question.

The government’s decision to decommission the reactor has long been delayed apparently because of fears that the step would raise questions about how to reprocess spent nuclear fuel in the recycling process and could have a negative impact on nuclear power generation itself.

The government should take this opportunity to confront the reality of its nuclear fuel recycling policy and try to create a new nuclear power policy that can win support of the public through open and broad debate.

Forging ahead with the plan to develop a fast reactor without following this process would be tantamount to betraying the people.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Dec. 22