Sunday, April 30, 2017

Japan's Nuclear Regulation Authority "Blasts" Joyo Breeder Reactor Re-Start as Unacceptable



Japan's leading nuclear regulatory authority, Shunichi Tanaka, chairman of the nation's NRA, has called re-starting the Joyo breeder reactor as "absolutely unacceptable":
Hiroshi Ishizuka. (2017, April 27). Watchdog blasts Joyo reactor restart plan as ‘unacceptable’. The Asahi Shimbun, http://www.asahi.com/ajw/articles/AJ201704270036.html
The nation's nuclear watchdog has slammed the operator of the Joyo experimental fast reactor in Ibaraki Prefecture for its approach to safety concerns in seeking an early restart.

Shunichi Tanaka, chairman of the Nuclear Regulation Authority, on April 26 labeled the Japan Atomic Energy Agency’s proposal to bring the reactor back online as “absolutely unacceptable.”

The NRA on April 25 suspended its screening of Joyo's restart plan based on stricter safety standards introduced after the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster.

“Has the JAEA seriously reflected on the accident at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant?” Tanaka asked at a news conference on April 26. “It said that explaining the restart (to municipalities) would take too much trouble. Its attitude toward the communities is wrong.”
Why does Tanaka resist re-start of the Joyo breeder reactor? Why is Japan pursuing the reactor given this resistance?  

The answer lies in the global geo-politics of security since breeder reactors are fetishized for their capacity to produce weapons grade fuel.

Here is some background taken from my 2013 book Fukushima and the Privatization of Risk beginning with background on Japan's nuclear complex and moving specifically to address the dangers of breeder reactors. I highlight the driving force behind breeder reactors: the capacity to produce weapons-grade plutonium:


By global standards, Japan has a relatively extensive nuclear complex. It has a vast network of commercial nuclear power plants and it has uranium reprocessing capabilities at Tokai. 

Japan has two established breeder reactors, Jōyō reactor, which began operation in 1977, and the Monju reactor, with troubled beginnings in 1994. Japan has vast nuclear processing and MOX production capabilities at the Rokkasho plant. Japan’s extensive nuclear capabilities are remarkable given strong anti-nuclear sentiments in the country after World War II.

Breeders, unlike boiling water reactors, also produce more fissile material than they consume. France, the UK, US, and Japan all pursued commercially aimed breeder programs, especially in the 1950s, because they promised to close the fuel cycle, reducing dependency upon new sources of uranium through reclamation and redeployment of actinide waste.[i]   

Spent fuel reprocessing was launched in countries hoping to deploy breeder reactor programs.[ii] A successful breeder program promised to bolster national security by producing energy, reducing nuclear waste, and ensuring access to enriched uranium and weapons grade plutonium.

Breeder reactor programs, however, presented two important problems.

The first problem centered on the security issues surrounding proliferation of weapons grade actinides, especially plutonium, officially designated for use for breeder reactor programs.

A nation could have on hand the resources need for nuclear weapons while remaining officially committed to non-proliferation. Ambiguity of intent served strategic purposes.

Plutonium was the ultimate Cold-War weapons material and global powers signaled prowess with their plutonium stockpiles, along with the missile technology required for delivery. For example, the Argonne National Laboratory reports that the US stockpiled about 110,000 kilograms (kg) of plutonium between 1944 and 1994, and about 100,000 kg remains in inventory.[iii] Breeder reactor programs therefore offered nations nuanced forms of security, while simultaneously increasing global insecurity.

The second problem with breeder reactors is that they are quite risky to operate. All nuclear types of nuclear reactors can suffer from loss of cooling accidents and from ‘reactivity excursion’ where control of the reactor core is lost, resulting in a runaway nuclear reaction.[iv] 

Breeder reactors are particularly prone to these types of accidents because they use sodium (rather than water) to mediate reactions, which promotes a faster reaction. Sodium burns if exposed to air and reacts violently with water. Preventing contamination of the sodium by water or air has proven difficult.[v] 

So, many commercially-aimed breeder reactor programs around the world were halted because their perceived risks outweighed their benefits in a context of affordable uranium and global plutonium stockpiles. Japan alone pursued a ‘commercial’ breeder reactor program, until it was closed in early 2012.

Cold War plutonium stockpiles posed significant security risks that became more obvious with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Subsequent efforts to draw down plutonium stockpiles focused on ‘recycling’ the plutonium by blending it with uranium, producing MOX fuel that could be run in the ‘slower’ commercial reactors that ultimately dominated the nuclear energy market. The risks of running MOX fuel in commercial reactors built primarily in the 1960s and 1970s are subject to debate, although will not be rehearsed here….

... Japan alone struggled on for years to develop a viable breeder reactor "energy" program that reduced nuclear waste and dependency upon uranium providers by exploiting the entire nuclear fuel cycle.[vi] 

In 1967, the Japanese Atomic Energy Commission’s (JAEC) first ‘Long Term Plan’ promoted fast breeder reactors as the mainstream for Japan’s nuclear power future.[vii] In 1988, Physics Today ran an article titled ‘Japan’s Nuclear Program Stresses Breeders, Plutonium, and Safeguards.’[viii]

The Monju breeder reactor began operation in 1994, but was soon shut down because of a major fire caused by a sodium leak in 1995.[x] The operator attempted to hide the incident by having workers alter their reports and through the creation of a strategically truncated video of the accident.[xi] Operations resumed in 2010, but another malfunction occurred.

In March of 1997 a small explosion and radiation release occurred at the Dōnen nuclear reprocessing plant. In 1999, the Jōyō fast-breeder uranium-reprocessing reactor at Tokai-mura (Ibaraki Prefecture) had an uncontrolled nuclear chain reaction that killed two employees and released radioactive emissions.

Reforms ensued. The Japanese Nuclear Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) was established in 2001 in response to central government reforms. At that time, a ‘Roundtable Committee on Fast Breeder Reactors was set up’ to create new policies. The recommendation was to maintain the program, but to adopt a more pragmatic approach that regarded the program as an option, as opposed to an ultimate goal.

As of early 2012, Japan calculated that it had invested $12 billion in its experimental ‘Monju’ sodium-cooled, fast-breeder reactor in Fukui Prefecture.[ix] Designed to operate on plutonium from reprocessed, spent reactor fuel, Monju has been beset with problems since its construction began in 1986....

....The death knell of the breeder fast-breeder program occurred in a February 23, 2012 review by the Japan Atomic Energy Commission, which concluded that technological considerations prevented the program from being a realistic option.[xii] 

By this time Japan has vast stockpiles of plutonium, stored domestically and abroad.[xiii] At the time of the Fukushima disaster, Japan had an inventory of more than 46 tons (8.7 Tons in Japan, approximately 37 tons in Europe) of separated plutonium.[xiv] 46 tons of plutonium equals to 41,730 kilograms. Joseph Trento claims Japan’s inventory of plutonium is actually 70 tons.[xv] 

It was recognized that efforts would need to be made to draw down these plutonium stockpiles. The commission recommended that some of it be recycled into MOX fuel that could be used in adapted boiling water reactors....




 
[i] Von Hippel ‘The Rise and Fall of the Plutonium Breeder Reactors’ in T. Cochran, H. Feiveson, W. Patterson, G. Pshakin, M. Ramana, M. Schneider, T. Suzuki, and F. von Hippel (eds.) Fast Breeder Reactor Programs: History and Status: A Research Report of the International Panel on Fissile Materials (pp. 1-16), http://fissilematerials.org/library/rr08.pdf.

[ii] Von Hipple ‘The Rise and Fall’ p. 2.

[iii] Argonne National Laboratory (August 2005) ‘Plutonium’, Human Health Fact Sheet, http://www.evs.anl.gov/pub/doc/Plutonium.pdf, date accessed 7 May 2012.

[iv] H. Caldicott (2006), Nuclear Power is Not the Answer (The New Press: New York), 124.

[v] von Hippel ‘The Rise and Fall’, p. 8.

[vi] J. Trento (9 April 2012) ‘United States Circumvented Laws to Help Japan Accumulate Tons of Plutonium’, National Security News Service, http://www.dcbureau.org/201204097128/national-security-news-service/united-states-circumvented-laws-to-help-japan-accumulate-tons-of-plutonium.html, date accessed 9 June 2012.

[vii] T. Suzuki (February 2010) ‘Japan’s Plutonium Breeder Reactor and its Fuel Cycle’ in T. Cochran, H. Feiveson, W. Patterson, G. Pshakin, M. Ramana, M. Schneider, T. Suzuki, and F. von Hippel (eds.) Fast Breeder Reactor Programs: History and Status: A Research Report of the International Panel on Fissile Materials (pp. 53-61), http://fissilematerials.org/library/rr08.pdf.

[viii] W. Sweet (1988) ‘Japan’s Nuclear Program Stresses Breeders, Plutonium, and Safeguards’, Physics Today, 41.1, 71-74.

[ix] J. Daly (27 February 2012) ‘Another Fukushima Causality: Japan’s Fast-Breeder Reactor Program’, Oil Price.Com, http://oilprice.com/alternative-energy/nuclear-power/another-fukushima-casualty-japans-fast-breeder-reactor-program.html, date accessed 8 June 2012.

[x] Suzuki, p. 54.

[xi] ‘Monju Costs Far Surpass Usual Nukes: Trouble-Prone Reactor Has Rung Up Far Higher Tab than Initially Planned’ (4 July 2012), Japan Times, http://www.japantimes.co.jp/text/nn20120704f1.html, date accessed 5 July 2012.

[xii] J. Daly (27 February 2012) ‘Another Fukushima Causality: Japan’s Fast-Breeder Reactor Program’, Oil Price.Com, http://oilprice.com/alternative-energy/nuclear-power/another-fukushima-casualty-japans-fast-breeder-reactor-program.html, date accessed 29 February 2012.

[xiii] S. Tatsujiro (2010) ‘Japan’s Plutonium Breeder Reactor and its Fuel Cycle’ in T. B. Cochran, H. A. Feiveson., W. Patterson, G. Pshakin, M.V. Ramana, M. Schneider, T. Suzuki, F. von Hippel (eds) Fast Breeder Reactor Programs: History and Status: A Research Report of the International Panel on Fissile Materials (pp. 53-61), http://fissilematerials.org/library/rr08.pdf.

[xiv] Tatsujiro ‘Japan’s Plutonium Breeder Reactor’.


[xv] J. Trento (19 April 2012) ‘US Circumvented Laws to Help Japan Accumulate tons of Plutonium’, National Security News Service, http://www.dcbureau.org/201204097128/national-security-news-service/united-states-circumvented-laws-to-help-japan-accumulate-tons-of-plutonium.html, date accessed 20 April 2012.

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