Fresh Ideas: Japan's nuclear power dilemma

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Japan lacks natural resources (i.e., oil and coal reserves) and as a consequence has become deeply committed to nuclear power to generate electricity. It has a total of 54 reactors and of these, 35 are presently shut down. Some because of damage from the March 11 earthquake, but most for the routine maintenance legally required every 13 months.

Since the Fukushima Daiichi accident in March, there has been a public backlash against nuclear power. Recent opinion polls show an overwhelming majority - 82 percent in a survey conducted a month ago for Tokyo Shimbun - support getting rid of the nation's reactors. The same polls show that most respondents actually want a gradual phasing out of nuclear power as alternatives are found.

From what I have read on the subject, it doesn't seem that the national government is going to be looking at alternatives to nuclear power any time soon. Granted, at the present time Prime Minister Naoto Kan, sensitive to the public's unease, has asked the governors of Japan's prefectures to also sign off on the restarts of the nuclear reactors, a "privilege" or "courtesy," however, that none of the governors are eager to avail themselves of. The prime minister has been widely criticized throughout Japan for having failed to chart a clear direction on Japan's post-Fukushima energy future, and so Mr. Kan has already agreed to step down once crucial recovery bills are passed.

I would be surprised if the governors choose to not sign off on the restarts of the reactors because despite the fears about safety, the fear of economic hard times is greater.

Japan's commitment to nuclear power plants is unswerving, I think, because it has already committed $12 billion to Monju, a fast-breeder reactor located three hundred miles southwest of Fukushima and only 60 miles from Kyoto.

Monju has a history of safety lapses, the last one involving a 3.3 ton device crashing into the reactor's inner vessel, cutting off access to the plutonium and uranium fuel rods at its core. Recovery of the device will cost almost $21.9 million, and is a dangerous enterprise itself. Even if the device is removed successfully, restarting the reactor will be risky, according to Hideyuki Ban, co-director of the Citizens' Nuclear Information Center and member of an advisory government committee on Japan's long-term nuclear energy policy. The fast- breeder design makes it more prone to Chernobyl-type runaway reactions in case of a severe accident, critics say.

The reactor's operator calls Monju a "vital national asset," however, because it is the cornerstone of a project to reuse and eventually produce nuclear fuel. Experts say that local communities were persuaded to provide land for power stations because they were promised that spent nuclear fuel would never be stored permanently on site, but used instead as fresh fuel for the nuclear fuel cycle.

There are risks with the fast-breeder reactors, however, that range from the use of liquid sodium (a hazardous material that reacts fiercely with water and air to cool its fuel) to the presence of toxic plutonium fuel (rather than uranium). Miwako Ogiso, secretary general of the Council of the People of Fukui Prefecture Against Nuclear Power says Monju is "Japan's most dangerous reactor."

And the New York Times reports that "In Monju, Japan is pursuing a technology that most countries have long abandoned."

• Ursula Carlson, Ph.D., is professor emerita at Western Nevada College.


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