Japanese-French fast breeder cooperation

Shaun Burnie with Mycle Schneider

Further cooperation between France and Japan on fast breeder reactor design and development has been announced at a May 5th 2014 summit meeting between Prime Minister Abe and President Hollande. The agreement between Japan's Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry (MEXT), the Natural Resources and Energy Agency (ANRE) and France's Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission (CEA) further extends existing collaboration between the two nations in their decades long efforts to establish fast breeder reactor technology.

According to media reports, "the French contingent has made strong demands" to use the sodium-cooled Monju prototype fast breeder reactor as a test facility for fuel intended to be used in France's new demonstration breeder ASTRID (Advanced Sodium Technological Reactor for Industrial Demonstration). The Abe administration has recently recommitted to the Monju project in its new Basic Energy Plan approved in April 2014. French government approval of the ASTRID project dates from 2006, with AREVA playing the lead design role. Detailed design was originally planned to be completed between 2014-2017 and the reactor commissioned by 2020. However, the new agreement will see the operator of Monju, the Japan Atomic Energy Agency (JAEA) and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, Ltd (MHI) working together with AREVA from 2016 on the basic design of ASTRID, with construction to be completed by 2025. A recent document by the French Nuclear Energy Society (SFEN) states that the ASTRID "detailed pre-project" design is to be completed by 2019 and grid connection is planned for the end of 2026. The document states that "the sodium fast neutron reactor, reference technology with the demonstration reactor ASTRID, responds to a logic based on proven experience: a technology implementable at the time horizon 2040/2050, in close coordination with the industrial partners, and in the framework of international cooperation in terms to be defined."

While cooperation between France and Japan in fast breeder reactor research dates back many years, both countries have failed to demonstrate that they can operate the technology within budget and without accident. France abandoned its large commercial breeder reactor Superphenix in 1998 after costly technical, legal and safety problems and one of the worst operating records in nuclear history. The Monju reactor operated from April 1994 to December 1995, when it suffered a sodium leak. It remained closed until May 2010, but was shutdown again in August 2010 following the collapse of fuel transfer equipment. In May 2013, Japan's Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) suspended the license for Monju, due to consistent safety and inspection failures and falsifications by JAEA - the NRA chair at the time described the operator as lacking a safety culture and deserving of severe action.

In what clearly is an attempt to revive the much troubled Monju project and breeder reactor development generally, and with the active support of the Hollande government, the Japanese government has committed to speed up the process of reforming the JAEA and will also attempt to secure safety approval by the NRA. Whether this is possible remains in doubt - investigations are on-going into the eight seismic crush zones right under the Monju site on the Tsuruga Peninsula, in Fukui Prefecture. If confirmed as active, Monju would not be permitted to resume operations under NRA regulations. Given these uncertainties and past record of Monju, relying on the reactor for testing ASTRID's nuclear fuel seems at best questionable.

The schedule of the ASTRID project has slipped continuously since it was originally announced in 2006. Its future also remains subject to approval under the new energy bill that should be passed before the end of the year.