Japanese government orders re-opening of nuclear reactor


TOKYO, Japan, Nov. 25, 2000 (Knight Ridder/Tribune)à‚– Five years after a massive leak of liquid sodium from its cooling system closed down Japan’s Monju fast-breeder reactor, the main source of the country’s nuclear power, the government announced Friday plans to reopen the controversial facility.

In December 1995 the Monju incident caused public furor and distrust in Japan’s burgeoning nuclear power industry after plant officials had tried to keep secret the magnitude of the leak by hiding a videotape of the drama.

The plant management only gave the alarm to the people in Tsuruga, Fukui Prefecture 90 minutes after the leak was first discovered.

But a special government panel Friday said the reactor had been checked out and made safe. Japan’s Atomic Energy Commission said Monju needed to be reactivated as soon as possible as part of the nation’s ambitious nuclear development policy. Japan relies almost entirely on imports for oil and other natural resources. The government is betting heavily on nuclear power to achieve a measure of long-term energy self-sufficiency.

“It is vital for Japan to restart the reactor as soon as safety is assured,” a statement by the government panel said.

Over the years, Monju had become synonymous with official Japanese secrecy. It has also served as a prime example by activists for denouncing the country’s 51 commercial reactors that provide one-third of Japan’s energy requirements.

The Monju nuclear reactor, located about 220 miles west of Tokyo, was the pride of Japan until three tons of liquid sodium leaked from its cooling system. Liquid sodium serves as a coolant for fast-breeder reactors but reacts violently if exposed to air or water.

After the accident, Japanese anti-nuclear activists argued that it proved sodium leaks were the main flaw in fast-breeder reactors. The opponents said that unless this weakness was corrected, no additional reactors of that type should become operative.

Monju had gone on line four months before the accident and was operating at only 40 percent of its total capacity. The leak was later attributed to shoddy welding.

Japan’s Science and Technology agency said the leak was one of the worst nuclear accidents anywhere in the world. Nine similar liquid sodium leaks have occurred worldwide since 1960. The worst was 20 tons from a fuel storage tank at a nuclear plant in France in 1987.

In a highly industrialized country with virtually no natural energy resources, Monju took 10 years to build and cost $6 billion. Its shutdown proved a major setback for Japan’s nuclear energy program.

The program was further crippled in September of 1999 when two workers died and more than 400 people were exposed to radiation after an accident at an experimental nuclear power plant in Tokaimura, Japan.

à‚© 2000, Chicago Tribune.

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