Photo/IllutrationThe upper part of the Monju prototype fast-breeder reactor (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

The industry ministry on Dec. 3 announced an outline of Japan’s new fast reactor project, the successor to the failed Monju prototype fast-breeder reactor that cost taxpayers more than 1 trillion yen ($8.82 billion).

The Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry said it aims to start operations of the fast reactor in the middle of this century and full operations in the last half of the century. The outline, however, did not provide such details as the type of fast reactor envisioned and its anticipated output.

The government’s panel on developing a fast reactor, headed by industry minister Hiroshige Seko, is expected to approve the road map for the project by the year-end.

The fast reactor project will be Japan’s second attempt to create a nuclear fuel recycling program.

The first attempt centered on the Monju reactor in Fukui Prefecture. It was designed to use plutonium recovered from spent fuel from other reactors.

However, the prototype fast-breeder reactor was plagued with problems, including a sodium coolant leak and other safety issues, and had remained offline for more than two decades.

The government decided to decommission Monju in December 2016.

The ministry’s announcement on Dec. 3 is the first time authorities mentioned a targeted time frame for a fast reactor since scrapping Monju became official.

The government’s fuel-recycling plan contains four stages: building an experimental reactor, followed by a prototype reactor, a demonstration reactor and finally a commercial reactor.

Before the triple meltdown at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant in 2011, the government had planned to build a demonstration reactor for fuel recycling by around 2025 and a commercial reactor before 2050.

The Monju project was only in the second stage.

A fast reactor uses fast neutrons and burns plutonium efficiently.

The ministry’s outline said the government will try an array of nuclear technologies expected to be proposed by the private sector over the coming five years or so.

In 2024 or later, the government will narrow down which technologies it will adopt for the fast reactor project and craft a new road map to bring the reactor online.

But the project and spending are expected to come under scrutiny given the huge price tag for Monju and the scant results achieved.

After the decommissioning of Monju was announced, the government said it would participate in France’s Advanced Sodium Technological Reactor for Industrial Demonstration (ASTRID) reactor program.

But the French government decided to scale back the program this year, and Japan’s plan is now up in the air.

The outline did not refer to ASTRID, although it mentioned Japan’s readiness to cooperate with the United States, France and other countries in nuclear technology.

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