Major Victory to Blow Nuclear Fuel Cycle Policy Nuke Info Tokyo No. 93

the ground-breaking ruling on the Monju fast breeder reactor

Picture: Plaintiffs’ lawyer holds up the High Court ruling which says “perfect victory” with a look of joy on his face and others congratulate major victory over the government’s go ahead for the Monju fast breeder reactor.

On 27 January 2003, the Nagoya High Court’s Kanazawa branch (presiding judge Mr. Kazuo Kawasaki) handed down a ruling to nullify the government’s 1983 permission for construction of the prototype Monju fast breeder reactor (FBR), whose operation has been stopped since the sodium leakage accident in 1995. This High Court’s judgment almost fully adopted the plaintiffs claim.This is a ground breaking court decision in the history of nuclear trials, as for the first time, it favors the plaintiffs’ arguments.

The Monju trial* has taken quite a long and roundabout route. In its early stages, the Court didn’t recognize the citizens of Fukui Prefecture as being eligible to file a claim. However, reversing the ruling of the Fukui District Court, the Supreme Court ruled that the status of plaintiffs should be applied to any residents who could be directly affected in the event of a disaster triggered primarily due to errors and faults found in the safety review of Monju. The ruling at the Nagoya Court correctly followed by the Supreme Court judge.

Soon after the ruling, the defendant of this trial, the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI), appealed to the Supreme Court. However, since the ruling in this case was based on the court’s 1992 judgment, their grounds for the appeal lacked a reasonable legitimated basis.


Figure 1. the location of Monju and nearby power plants at Fukui Prefecture

Point in dispute at the Monju trial

To summarize the issues disputed over the court trial, there are three points in the Monju pre-construction safety review**, which they regarded as inappropriate and erroneous.

1. Preventive measure against sodium leakage

After the sodium leak accident on 8 December 1995 and new findings from the combustion experiments performed after the accident, it was found that there were critical flaws and errors in the safety assessment of a floor liner, a steel plate that covered the floor to prevent an explosion caused by contact between sodium used in the secondary cooling system and the concrete, which contains moisture.

The cause of the sodium leakage and explosive accident in 1995 was attributed to a simple design error in a thermometer inserted in the main secondary pipe. Strees accumulated around the point where the this pipe portion of the temperature gauge was positioned inside the layer pipe, and this led to the pipe rupture and sodium leakage.

As a result, the ruling said, ‘it can’t be denied real threat that the radioactive substances in the nuclear reactor container could be released into the environment, if all the secondary cooling system lost its function.

2. Preventive measure against steam generator accident

The second point of the ruling was the fact that government’s safety review concerning the damages in a steam generator did not fully address preventive measures against simultaneous steam generator pipe rupture accident where a rupture in one pipe trigger the other ruptures in peripheral pipes under high temperatures. Given the disastrous effects that could be anticipated in the event of an accident, the ruling noted that, ‘there were undeniably noticeable errors and overlooked facts during the reviewing process.’ Simultaneous chain reaction of heat-conducting pipe rupture could result in unpredicted spike and uncontrolable variations in power output, which eventually could lead to a reactor core meltdown and the release of radioactive substance into the environment.

3. Threat of reactor core meltdown accident

The third point that the ruling clarified was that the government unquestioningly approved the reactor construction, as proposed by the then state-run Power Reactor and Nuclear Fuel Development Corporation (PNC) safety review concerning the prevention of the core meltdown accident, without sufficient investigations of its analysis. Therefore, the court could not allow the government’s justification, which was not based on reasonable sufficient investigations by the Nuclear Safety Commission.

Figure 2. Monju inside diagram and points of debate over the trial

Lessons learned from the Monju trial

In his recent article contributed to our monthly report, Dr. Sanshiro Kume, a former lecturer at Osaka University and scientific advisor of the Monju trial, admitted that it was strategically pointless to expect court judges to recognize the ‘threat’ of Monju, since the judges are only concerned with the matter in light of the legal perspective (Citizens’ Nuclear Information Center Communication: 2002 June). That is, he argues, many court trials that have fought to halt the operation of nuclear power plants expected judges to be more knowledgeable than the government-backed scientists and tried to persuade them to rule that there were flaws in the government’s claim from scientific points of view. In considering this, he reasoned that it was necessary for plaintiffs to learn the legal scheme which directly addresses the violation of nuclear reactor regulatory law.

The Supreme Court ruling in 1992 regarding the construction approval of Ikata No.1 in Ehime Prefecture, the ruling stipulated that the subject of the safety review was the safety of the basic design of the reactor, which rejected a long-held view that the subject of a safety review was the basic design itself. The Nuclear Safety Commission established a set of guiding principles to ensure the safety of the FBR entitled as the ‘manual for the safety assessment of the FBR.’ Aprops the ruling at Ikata plant, it is critical for plaintiffs to verify whether the ‘subject of the Monju basic design’ in the safety review was appropriately set with regard to ensuring the ‘safety’ of the reactor. A manual would presumably include more than one such principle.

The safety assessment becomes a dead letter

Many remarkable statements were made by the Court critically addressing many flaws found in Japan’s nuclear safety assessment system, which has more or less become a mere name, to cite a few, ‘the NSC never sought the revision of safety assessment by the operator,’ ‘the draft of safety review was nothing but the carbon copy of the operator’s construction design,’ ‘it is still highly doubtful that the government conducted thorough investigation on this matter,’ ‘the government seems irresponsible and it is not an exaggeration to say that they almost gave up their inspection procedures.’ They are all reasonable criticism, however, the chair committee of the NSC commented that ‘it (the High Court ruling) is a pitiful decision and we are discussing a refutation of the court decision.’

The dead locked nuclear fuel cycle

The construction cost of Monju has reached about 600 billion yen (about $5 billion) and each year 10 billion yen (about $83 million) is setaside for maintenance after the accident. It is also expected that about 20 billion yen will be spent for the plant modification. Paying tax money into the problem-plagued FBR means nothing but ‘throwing good money after bad.’ Moreover, restarting Monju, which is capable of producing weapon-grade highly purified plutonium, would heighten international tensions over the development of nuclear weapons.

As the ruling pointed out, the history of FBR development in many other states shows that the FBR has been plagued with many technical problems which have prevented its commercialization. Therefore, many countries have abandoned research and development activities associate with it. The ruling certainly denied the peril of the FBR’s immature technology and the government’s safety review that approved such immature and perilous technology. The government, including the METI, the Agency for Nuclear and Industrial Safety (ANIS), Japan Nuclear Fuel Cycle and Development Institute (JNC) should honestly admit the legitimacy of the High Court ruling and should immediately abandon the wasteful research and development of the Monju Fast Breeder Reactor. We earnestly demand that the government abandon plutonium utilization policy. Also, it should immediately prepare for the decommission of the Monju.

Table 1. The Chronology of the Monju Trial

* The Monju Trial: On September 1985, residents of Fukui Prefecture filed two lawsuits to the Fukui District Court. In an administrative litigation, Fukui residents claimed to nullify the permission for establishing the Monju fast breeder nuclear reactor against the government, and they are also seeking the injunction of its operation against the then PNC (the JNC at present) in a civic action. On March 8, the plaintiffs of the civil suite withdrew their claim to focus on the administrative litigation while reducing their burden.

** Safety Review (Licensing Review of Nuclear Facilities): This is a series of licensing procedures to issue the government permit for the operator of nuclear facilities, based on the Law for the Regulation of Nuclear Source Material, Nuclear Fuel Material and Reactors (the Nuclear Reactor Regulation Law), which examines the safety of nuclear reactors in light of their construction design. The permission will be given according to the criteria that are capable of preventing the release of radioactivity in the event of nuclear disaster.

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