"Monju’s relaunch was delayed for years in part because of outrage over the cover-up."
Monju FBR, Fukui region, Tsuruga bay, Sea of Japan coast
Troubled Monju reactor revived in Fukui
Monju operation resumes after 14-1/2-yr hiatus
Japan's Monju fast-breeder reactor restarts
Reactor fired up after 14 years asleep
Japan restarts fast breeder amid safety, security fears .
These are today's headlines on the restart of the FBR, the Fast Breed Reactor Monju. I remember this evening of December 8th 1995 and the following days when the name Monju FBR came to the headline news. I was at my desk in Tokyo and heard about a leakage of sodium. News-reports on Japan televisions tended to downgrade the accident. I could not believe it. How could they go so lightly!? Even though sciences are not my major I knew, and I guess many people did, that sodium meeting air equals fire. Fire in a nuclear power plant... Imagine...
The number 1 controversy with Monju was "a bad communication." A real problem in Japan where people have or pretend difficulties to express their ideas or are rarely willing to state anything. But hey, we are talking about the most sophisticated type of technology. Who are the people hired to handle the PR?
A few hours later, Japan nuclear companies denying questions, I called my good old friend Robert C... who was the top man at the nuclear office of the French embassy, had a chat with his secretary and then we evaluated the issue. Maybe risky but as Robert said: "we all have families and we're not crazy." We'll do the best to secure and help Japanese nuclear industrials. France and Japan nuclear cooperation is a long old story, "very profitable", industry says.
Monju closed and nobody would have dared to say that it would reopen without a sense of fear. 14 years passed. Local regional pressure is hard on Tokyo central government. Fukui prefecture is a nuclear entity. So much radioactivity concentration there. Fishes and crabs grow big...
I visited Monju heart reactor recently for an interesting foreign press visit set by the Japanese industry and thanks to the useful report organization of the Foreign Press Center of Japan http://fpcj.jp/. *
There, I met a lot of JAEA people whose motives was to say: "all is fine, do not worry...!" Outside Monju facilities, a no man's land perimeter reinforced after a long access tunnel, there are barriers and anti-riot security walls, police trucks in case of demonstrations from local residents. Not all agree to live near-by the FBR apparently.
A few days ago, end of April, prior to the relaunch of Monju FBR, a malfunction (again) in a coolant-leak detector set off alarms at the Monju prototype nuclear reactor. The Japan Atomic Energy Agency displays a replacement sodium detector. The government-affiliated agency said then the sodium detector, housed in a reactor auxiliary building at the Monju center in Tsuruga, Fukui Prefecture, shut down after a fan motor overheated, triggering an alarm. On the restart, industry minister Masayuki Naoshima had fell short of making a clear-cut statement, said, "It could or could not have" an impact... But one thing is that Japanese nuclear industry responded fast in communicating the incident to the local community and in handling the reactor's restart. No leak was detected but the incident was revealed just one day after Fukui Gov. Issei Nishikawa suggested he will allow the resumption of the reactor in exchange for pledges of subsidies and incentives from the central government.
Regions pressure Tokyo to get subsidies. Japan local prefectures are in genuine difficult situation and cruise in dangerous waters of letting the Hatoyama politics go beyond the sense of reason regarding energy related technical decisions, pushed by the so-called-clean-environment-lobby frenzy, as one of my source at the IAEA stated privately. Let's cross fingers... To me, it looks like they all learned the lessons, partly, but I cannot hide the fact that the facilities look rather old and lay on a seismic plate uncertainty! And this is something I worry about for the locals and the engineers over there.
Now the latest buzz with Wire news quotes. All papers talk about it today.
Quotes : "Japan's Monju fast-breeder reactor resumed operations Thursday after 14 years and five months of suspension due to a sodium coolant leak and a resultant fire. The prototype fast-breeder reactor in Tsuruga, Fukui Prefecture, restarted at 10:36 a.m. after plant staff pulled out rods that had prevented nuclear reaction. The reactor, operated by the Japan Atomic Energy Agency, http://www.jaea.go.jp/ is expected to reach criticality, or the point when a nuclear chain reaction becomes self-sustaining, on Saturday. The reactor is then to gradually raise its power output and begin full-fledged operations in the spring of 2013. Unlike regular light-water reactors that run on uranium, a fast- breeder reactor uses an oxide mix of plutonium and uranium and is designed to generate more plutonium than it burns. The central government aims to complete the development of a commercial fast-breeder reactor by around 2050.
But a host of problems lie ahead, including the need to renovate outmoded facilities at the plant, and massive safety and development costs. Construction of Monju started in October 1985. The reactor first achieved criticality in April 1994. But the reactor was closed after a serious accident involving a sodium leak and fire in December 1995. A pipe carrying sodium coolant broke due to vibration, causing about 640 kilograms of sodium to leak out and come into contact with the air, sparking a reaction with oxygen and moisture. Fumes filled the room where the leak happened but the sodium was not radioactive because the accident occurred in the plant's secondary cooling system.
In 2000, the government decided to restart the reactor. But the decision met with opposition from a safety-conscious general public, resulting in a series of court battles. In January 2003, the Nagoya high court issued a ruling reversing an earlier decision to approve the construction of the reactor. In May however, the Supreme Court reversed the ruling, giving the final go-ahead to the reopening. While the planned reopening cleared the legal hurdle, resumption was postponed several times because of delays in repairs. In January this year, the Japan Atomic Energy Agency completed in-house safety inspections of the reactor, followed by a green light given by the government's nuclear safety panel in March. In late April, the governor of Fukui Prefecture hosting the plant endorsed the reopening."
Monju sodium leak and fire
"On December 8, 1995, the reactor suffered a serious accident. Intense vibration caused a thermowell inside a pipe carrying sodium coolant to break, possibly at a defective weld point, allowing several hundred kilograms of sodium to leak out onto the floor below the pipe. Upon coming into contact with the air, the liquid sodium reacted with oxygen and moisture in the air, filling the room with caustic fumes and producing temperatures of several hundred degrees Celsius. The heat was so intense that it melted several steel structures in the room. An alarm sounded around 7:30 p.m., switching the system over to manual operations, but a full operational shutdown was not ordered until around 9:00 p.m., after the fumes were spotted. When investigators located the source of the spill they found as much as three tons of solidified sodium.
Fortunately, the leak occurred in the plant's secondary cooling system, so the sodium was not radioactive. However, there was massive public outrage in Japan when it was revealed that Power Reactor and Nuclear Fuel Development Corporation (PNC), the semigovernmental agency then in charge of Monju, had tried to cover up the extent of the accident and resulting damage. This coverup included falsifying reports and the editing of a videotape taken immediately after the accident, as well as the issuing of a gag order to employees regarding the existence of the real tapes." End of quotes Wikipedia.
Sources: Mainichi, Asahi, Nikkei, Japan Times, wire news, Jaea http://www.jaea.go.jp/english/index.shtml, Reporter's notes.
* I wish France could create such an NPO institution same as the Foreign Press Center of Japan http://fpcj.jp/.