Photo/IllutrationThe Monju prototype fast-breeder reactor in Tsuruga, Fukui Prefecture (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

Japan's hopes of keeping its nuclear fuel recycling program alive faces another major obstacle with signs from France that a reactor project there will be scaled back because of swelling construction costs.

After the nuclear fuel recycling program suffered a heavy blow with the decision in late 2016 to decommission the Monju prototype fast-breeder reactor, government officials turned to France's ASTRID program as an alternative information source for the fuel recycling plan.

But French government officials said the Advanced Sodium Technological Reactor for Industrial Demonstration will have its planned power generation scaled back from the initial plan of 600 megawatts of electricity to between 100 and 200 megawatts.

The major aim of the nuclear fuel recycling program is to reprocess spent nuclear fuel to extract plutonium, which would be used to create mixed-oxide fuel that could be burned in nuclear reactors.

Government officials had hoped to use various technologies emerging from the ASTRID program to eventually construct a demonstration fast reactor in Japan. But a scaled-back ASTRID would mean knowledge needed for the demonstration reactor would not be available.

According to several government sources, French government officials informed their Japanese counterparts of the planned reduction in the ASTRID power generation plan due mainly to the high construction costs.

French officials also inquired about the possibility of Japan shouldering half the ASTRID construction burden, which could run anywhere between several hundreds of billions of yen to about 1 trillion yen ($9.2 billion).

Plans call for constructing the ASTRID in France with construction to start sometime after 2023.

Much like the Monju prototype reactor, liquid sodium would be used as a coolant in the ASTRID, which is designed to more easily burn plutonium as a fuel. Since the ASTRID would be a demonstration reactor that is one stage ahead of the Monju prototype, it would be closer to realization as a commercial reactor.

When the government decided to decommission the problem-plagued Monju, it also decided to construct a demonstration fast reactor in Japan to maintain its nuclear fuel recycling program.

The ASTRID initially was expected to provide valuable data for the future demonstration fast reactor by achieving complete power generation, a stage the Monju prototype never reached, as well as know-how related to maintenance, management and safety measures.

But if the ASTRID is scaled back, one official involved in the program in Japan said, "It would become more difficult to explain to the public why money was being funneled into the (ASTRID) demonstration reactor that was smaller in scale than the Monju prototype reactor."

The Monju was designed to generate 280 megawatts of electricity.

The government is planning to compile a road map for the next decade concerning development of a domestic fast reactor before the end of the year.

Even some officials of the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, which has been promoting the nuclear fuel recycling program, have raised doubts about participating in the ASTRID program.

Concerns are also being raised among lawmakers in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, with one executive wondering if cooperating with the ASTRID program could end up much like the Monju project, which wasted more than 1 trillion yen following a spate of accidents and other problems.

(This article was written by Tsuneo Sasai, Shinichi Sekine and Rintaro Sakurai.)