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Agency to bring fast-breeder reactor out of mothballs

Japanese nuclear energy prototype back on track after 1995 accident.

Tokyo

Japan is taking steps to restart its prototype fast-breeder nuclear reactor, which has been sitting dormant in the northern state of Fukui since an accident in 1995.

In February, the Fukui government approved plans to restart the Monju reactor, effectively giving the go-ahead for a government plan to spend ¥15 billion (US$140 million) over the next few years to get the prototype running again.

Critics of the move point out that fast-breeder technology has been abandoned in Britain, the United States and Germany.

“It was a mistake to build the Monju reactor. It is too expensive and time-consuming,” says Hitoshi Yoshioka, a specialist in the history of science and science policy at Kyushu University and a member of Japan's Atomic Energy Commission.

However, India and China are forging ahead with fast-breeders, which use mixed oxides of plutonium and uranium as fuel and produce more fissile material than they consume. Japan's determination to press on with the project suggests that in Asian nations with limited sources of energy the technology still has a future.

“Japan needs to look for new energy resources,” says Hiroshi Nunota, an official at the nuclear fuel cycle section of the education ministry, which is funding the project.

The government of Fukui had been reluctant to allow the reactor to restart following public concern about an accident in 1995, when liquid sodium coolant leaked from the reactor's secondary cooling system.

Critics of the project claim that the state only reversed its decision after the central government agreed to provide economic packages and to link Fukui to Tokyo by bullet train.

Japan's Nuclear Cycle Development Institute has been working on the project since 1968 and its cost to date is estimated at ¥800 billion. A final obstacle to its resuming operation — a 2003 court ruling that nullified its construction permit — is likely to be overturned during the next couple of months, say energy analysts.

The institute still needs to win approval from the local government and residents before restarting the operation. But most analysts think that this approval will also be forthcoming.

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