Photo/IllutrationMembers of the Fukui prefectural nuclear safety expert committee inspect the Monju prototype fast-breeder reactor in Tsuruga, Fukui Prefecture, in August. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

Disregarding the failure of its hugely expensive Monju prototype fast-breeder reactor project, the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry on Dec. 3 announced an outline of a new fast reactor project that would require massive, continued investments.

The government must rethink this plan. It is simply wrong to try to keep alive its nuclear fuel recycling program whose uselessness has been proved by Monju.

A fast reactor enables efficient combustion of plutonium for power generation. It plays the crucial role in a nuclear fuel recycling program that reuses plutonium extracted from spent fuel. Japan has been developing the technology since the 1950s.

But the government in 2016 announced that Monju, which cost taxpayers 1.1 trillion yen ($9.73 billion), would be decommissioned after two decades of remaining a virtual white elephant.

Future plans have been discussed by a working group of the Council on Fast Reactor Development that was formed in 2016, consisting of government ministries and agencies concerned, utilities and nuclear power plant manufacturers.

The outline of the new project was the first put together by the council.

Before the 2011 Fukushima disaster, the government was planning to complete a post-Monju demonstration reactor by around 2025 and have a commercial reactor before 2050.

But according to the new outline, the post-Monju demonstration reactor will start operating around mid-century and a fast reactor will enter into full operation in the latter half of the century.

This avoidance to indicate any specific timetable effectively spells a postponement.

The outline also gives no specifics on the type or output of the new reactor, and yet says its technology will be defined in about five years from now.

Clearly, the government’s aim is to simply keep the development going.

Abandoning the development of a new fast reactor would be tantamount to admitting the failure of the nation’s nuclear fuel recycling policy.

Such an admission would lead to all sorts of problems, such as what to do about a fuel reprocessing plant currently under construction in Aomori Prefecture and how to deal with all the spent fuel piling up at nuclear power plants around the nation.

The only way to avoid opening this can of worms is to simply continue fast reactor development and gloss over the failed fuel recycling program, and that is exactly what the government is doing.

And that was precisely why the government made no attempt to fully assess the pros and cons of fast reactor development itself when it decided to scrap Monju.

To keep alive its failed nuclear fuel recycling program, the government is slapping a huge tab on taxpayers, in the forms of taxes and utility charges. If this isn’t irresponsible, what is?

With costs rising from reinforced safety measures after the Fukushima disaster, even “ordinary” nuclear power generation is losing economic viability. There is no practical merit in commercializing a fast reactor that is technically much harder to develop and is a poorer choice in terms of profitability.

In fact, those reasons were cited by many advanced nations for giving up such projects. Even France, which has been determined to hang on, is now faced with snags in its Advanced Sodium Technological Reactor for Industrial Demonstration (ASTRID) fast reactor project.

We cannot understand the Japanese government’s refusal to look at this reality objectively.

The nation must appropriate its limited budget effectively to areas that offer future potential, such as renewable energy.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Dec. 5