Rallies against the Monju Reactor Nuke Info Tokyo No. 146

During the three days from December 1 to 3, the Japanese organizations opposing nuclear power took various actions to demand decommissioning of the “Monju” reactor. The organizations included Fukui Prefecture Citizens Against Nuclear Power, Stop The Monju, Fukui Prefecture Citizens Against Atomic and Hydrogen Bombs, the All Japan Anti-nuclear Liaison Association and Citizens’ Nuclear Information Center (CNIC).

Monju is a prototype fast-breeder reactor designed to produce 280 MWe from 714 MWt. The construction of the reactor began in 1985. Comprehensive function testing was carried out in the 1991-1992 period. The reactor achieved criticality for the first time on April 5, 1994 and generated electricity for the first time on August 29, 1995. On December 8, 1995, about three months later, a sodium coolant leak occurred during trial operation at 40% power, causing a fire. After the accident, the reactor was shut down until May 2010.

The reasons for the reactor being shut down for such a long period of time are twofold. The first is that the release of the manipulated video taken at the accident scene caused public distrust of the government’s nuclear energy policy, making it impossible to win consent of the local people for resumption of the reactor’s operation. The other reason is that the high court judged that permission by the authorities for restarting operation of the reactor was illegal because of serious oversights made in the safety analysis procedures. The Supreme Court, however, reversed the decision in 2005.

Since the accident in 1995, the five organizations mentioned above have organized a gathering of people from all parts of the nation every December to hold a rally at the accident site. Currently the operation of Monju is suspended due to a series of problems that occurred after the trial operation in May 2010.

In the wake of the Fukushima nuclear accident, the areas in which residents are required to evacuate or take other measures in the event of a nuclear accident were expanded from a 10 kilometer radius of the nuclear power plant to a 30 kilometer radius. As a result, Kyoto and Shiga Prefectures were added to the list of administrative regions required to formulate anti-nuclear-disaster measures. At the same time, it was decided that many municipalities in Fukui Prefecture should take necessary anti-disaster measures. (See map below) In response to this move, we decided to ask more municipalities to join our efforts to urge the government to decommission the Monju reactor.

On December 1, members of our organizations met the prefectural governors and the mayors of cities, towns and villages in Kyoto and Shiga Prefectures to ask them to urge the government to decommission the Monju reactor. On December 2, meetings were also held with the governor of Fukui Prefecture, the mayor of Tsuruga city and the chiefs of neighboring municipalities for the same purpose. It seems that each municipality is taking possible anti-nuclear-disaster measures, such as the stockpiling of potassium iodide pills. All the municipalities sought conclusion of a safety agreement similar to those the municipalities in which nuclear power plants are located have signed with the electric power companies. The agreement would not only enable those municipalities to receive information related to nearby nuclear power plants, but would also give them the right to refuse construction or expansion of plant facilities and the right to make on-site inspections in case of a nuclear accident. The agreement, however, places very strict conditions on the power companies and is a hard pill for them to swallow. The reluctance of the power companies to accept expanded application of the agreement is allegedly slowing the progress of the negotiations with the municipalities.

Another noteworthy event that occurred in Fukui Prefecture after the Fukushima nuclear accident is that on June 9, 2011 the Obama City assembly unanimously passed a resolution calling for Japan to phase out nuclear power. In Obama, all the residents are living within a 20 km radius of the Ohi nuclear power plant. The resolution calls on the government to set a deadline for full withdrawal from nuclear power and not to operate any nuclear power plant for more than 30 years. It also demands construction of roads necessary for local people to use for evacuation. Unfortunately, however, Obama is the only city in Japan that has passed such a resolution thus far.

We held a rally on the morning of December 3 in Shirakihama, Tsuruga City, where Monju is located, and submitted a petition to the head of the Monju plant calling for decommissioning of the reactor. We held another meeting and marched in Tsuruga City in protest against Monju later in the day. The number of participants at the meeting and the protest march topped 1,000, which was higher than that of previous years.

At the meeting, former Fukushima Prefectural governor Eisaku Sato delivered a speech. Based on his own experience during his tenure as governor, Sato criticized the government for forcing municipalities to accept its policies, and emphasized the need to change the government’s current nuclear energy policy. Sato established a study group in the prefectural government office in 2001, during his governorship, and embarked on a review of the government’s nuclear energy policy. In September 2002, he proposed a review of the government’s policy related to nuclear fuel, including the MOX pluthermal project (the use of plutonium in thermal reactors). Sato also promoted measures against nuclear power, such as revitalization of the primary industries in his prefecture and active promotion of renewable energy, under the slogan of “Utsukushima Fukushima (Beautiful Fukushima).” In his speech, Sato blamed the nuclear disaster in Fukushima on government failure to correctly implement nuclear energy policy and called for Japan’s withdrawal from nuclear power.

When the catastrophic nuclear accident broke out in Fukushima, Monju was offline due to an accident that occurred on August 26, 2010 in which the in-vessel transfer machine fell into the reactor vessel. Atsuyuki Suzuki, president of the Japan Atomic Energy Agency (JAEA), expressed his intention to withdraw from the policy to put the fast-breeder reactor to practical use, saying it would be impossible to win a national consensus on the policy. In order to build a new demonstration reactor, it would be necessary to find land to site the reactor and to gain the consent of local residents. Financial support from electric power companies is also necessary to secure the construction costs. The Fukushima nuclear accident, however, has made it difficult to fulfill any of these conditions. That is most likely the reason why Suzuki expressed his intention to renounce the policy to promote the fast-breeder reactor.

There has also emerged a possibility that the Monju project will be suspended. The Fukushima nuclear accident has made it more difficult for JAEA to secure research and development budget for the reactor. This has resulted in a delay in the restart of the reactor’s operation until the end of fiscal year 2012 and reduction of the overall budget. JAEA said it had cut the budget for Monju to the minimum level at which maintenance and operation costs just covered the continuing safety of the reactor. Nevertheless, the agency has requested 17.5 billion yen as budget for the reactor this year. This amount is four billion yen less than that for last year.
The agency said it would make up for the slashed budget by reducing costs for purchasing equipment and postponing the replacement of worn-out equipment. Given the situation after the Fukushima nuclear accident, these austerity measures are unavoidable for the agency, but as long as this situation persists, it is certain that the old and creaky equipment of the reactor will cause frequent problems if operation of the reactor is resumed.

The New Nuclear Policy-planning Council for reviewing nuclear energy policy has started discussions on the nuclear fuel cycle. It is still uncertain whether or not the council will reach the conclusion that Monju should be decommissioned, but there are mounting calls for decommissioning of the reactor. The fate of Monju will likely become clear later this year.

(Hideyuki Ban, Co-director)

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