Cameron W. Barr, Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor
NO radioactive material was released in a recent mishap at an experimental reactor in Japan, but the metaphorical fallout continues to spread.Skip to next paragraph
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Public concerns prompted by the Dec. 8 incident, which plant managers sloppily attempted to cover up, will further delay and may even extinguish government plans to develop a network of reactors that simultaneously burn and generate nuclear fuel.
Japan relies heavily on nuclear power, the source of a third of the nation's electricity, and its officials have imagined the problem-ridden "fast-breeder" technology as a source of renewable energy.
The debate is over nuclear power, but the incident has engendered new forms of political might as well. Officials from the area around the reactor have shown an unusual willingness to confront the central government.
While activists praise this rare behavior, they vow to prevent the state-funded Power Reactor and Nuclear Fuel Development Corp. (PNC) from restarting the reactor at the facility, known as Monju. They also say they will continue to oppose the Japanese government's long-range plans to broaden the use of plutonium in its nuclear energy industry.
"I think we can scrap Monju," says Jinzaburo Takagi, a physicist who is a prominent opponent of the government's plutonium plans. "And the Japanese plutonium program should be revised substantially and scaled down."
The ruling coalition government has said it will investigate Monju and may reexamine overall nuclear energy policy. Press reports this week say officials of Japan's Science and Technology Agency have also acknowledged the need to review plans for the use of plutonium.
Ryukichi Imai, a high-level adviser to the government on nuclear matters, says of the Monju mishap: "It is not a tragedy as far as the technology is concerned. It was a tragedy as a public relations event."
On Dec. 8, managers shut down Monju as an estimated two tons of sodium in one of the reactor's cooling systems began to leak, setting off fire alarms. PNC officials tried to play down the incident, and later scrutiny showed that they repeatedly lied to the news media about their handling of the leak and delayed in informing local authorities.
Mr. Imai observes, "The stupidity of the PNC is beyond anybody's imagining, so the PNC deserves to be criticized."
Officials of Fukui Prefecture, where Monju is located, released an interim report Dec. 25 criticizing Monju's design, warning systems, and operating procedures. The prefecture has reportedly said it will not allow the reactor to be restarted unless improvements are made.
Monju is a prototype fast-breeder reactor. Its plutonium core is clad in a uranium "blanket" that is partially converted to plutonium during the nuclear reaction. It thus breeds its own fuel and then some.
Although there were once fears of a global uranium shortage, which in part inspired Japan's research on fast-breeders, now most countries are satisfied that they will not run out. This status quo generates a lot of radioactive waste from uranium reactors, a problem not yet solved, but that may be the lesser of two evils.