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Japan puts reactor program on back burner

Copyright © 1997 Nando.net

TOKYO (October 1, 1997 11:39 a.m. EDT http://www.nando.net) - Japan's fast-breeder reactor program, a cornerstone of the nation's energy program in the 21st century, has suffered a major setback, Japanese nuclear policy-makers said Wednesday.

A subgroup of the powerful Atomic Energy Commission said in a draft policy report it was too early to draw up a timetable for the program to move beyond the experimental stage.

"It is premature to make a decision about when Japan can put the fast-breeder reactor into practical use," the report by the governmental advisory panel said.

The report marked a shift from Japan's long-term nuclear program, which had been aiming to put the "dream" reactor -- which in theory produces more nuclear fuel then it spends -- into practical use by around 2030.

"We can't deny that it's a setback (for us)," a Science and Technology Agency official said when asked about the commission's report, released Tuesday. The agency oversees Japan's ambitious nuclear power program.

The draft, however, fell short of totally abandoning the fault-prone program. But it made clear that other energy alternatives would have to be pursued if the fast-breeder programme were to continue to falter.

"If the choice of fast- breeder reactors as an alternative to fossil fuels becomes difficult, Japan must try to develop the use of other forms of energy to break its reliance on fossil fuel," the report said.

Japan's continued allegiance to the fast- breeder reactor technology has flown in the face of global trends to abandon the program.

In June, France said it would scrap the highly controversial Superphenix nuclear fast-breeder, saying it was too costly and of doubtful value.

Britain, the United States and Germany have already abandoned their programs for similar reasons.

The state-owned Power Reactor and Nuclear Fuel Development Corp (PNC), the operator of Japan's fault-prone prototype fast- breeder reactor Monju, also came under criticism in the report for accidents and cover-ups.

Monju, which the report said took 12 years and $4.91 billion to build, has been shut down since December 1995 after a massive coolant leak.

The PNC was blamed for having caused "a loss of public faith" for its mismanagement of the accident and its attempts to cover up the incident with doctored videos and incomplete reports.

The PNC is due to be streamlined next year after the incident at Monju and a series of other recent accidents at its facilities, which prompted a review of the organization.

Two more experimental fast- breeder reactors were initially planned for construction in the next century after Monju.

The Science and Technology Agency said it was up to Japan's electric utilities industry to decide whether it wanted to build the reactors.

Even after it is downsized next year, the PNC will retain its core fast-breeder reactor and fuel recycling program, the Science and Technology Agency official said.

"Development might be delayed (as a result of the report), but we firmly believe that a day will come when the (fast- breeder reactor) technology will be needed," he said.