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Sep 20, 10:28 AM EDT

Japan official calls for scrapping of troubled Monju reactor



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TOKYO (AP) -- The head of the Japanese ruling party's policy council said Tuesday that the government should consider scrapping the problem-plagued Monju plutonium-breeder reactor.

Monju, designed to burn plutonium and produce more of it while generating electricity was once considered a "dream reactor" for resource-poor Japan and a centerpiece of its fuel recycling ambitions. But the 1 trillion yen ($9.8 billion) reactor has hardly operated since an accident in 1995, months after it went online. Improving its safety would require billions of more dollars and considerable time.

"It's time to make a concrete decision, including decommissioning," said Toshimitsu Motegi, the Liberal Democratic Party's policy council chairman.

His comment came one day before key Cabinet ministers related to the Monju program are to meet to reach an agreement. The ministers - including those from the industry, environment, foreign and finance ministries - are reportedly leaning toward scrapping Monju due to the huge costs of maintaining the reactor, which is now considered a white elephant.

Monju has operated only 250 days in the past 22 years, and has cost about 20 billion yen ($200 million) per year just to maintain the facility, said Motegi, who has served as industry and trade minister. Maintaining and upgrading the decades-old reactor to conform with new safety standards introduced after the Fukushima nuclear accident would require several hundred billion yen (billions of dollars), he added.

Anti-nuclear sentiment has run high among the Japanese public since the March 2011 nuclear disaster at Fukushima, and there have been growing calls to close down Monju. The reactor's production of more plutonium than it uses also poses a burden on Japan, whose stockpile of plutonium reprocessed elsewhere from spent fuel is already causing international proliferation concerns.

Motegi said Japan's spent fuel recycling plan would not change without Monju.

Japan has largely switched to an alternative approach of mixing plutonium with uranium to make MOX fuel, which can be used in conventional reactors.

Last November, Japan's nuclear authority urged the science ministry, which oversees Monju, to disqualify its operator over its poor safety record or scrap the reactor. A recent ministry report failed to present a drastic reform plan or find a new operator with expertise in running the specialized reactor, which uses sodium, which is flammable, as a coolant instead of water.

Local officials in Tsuruga, Monju's location in western Japan that relies on government subsidies and employment from the project, oppose the reactor's decommissioning.

There have been discussions about using Monju for other purposes, including experimenting with fuel waste reduction.

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Follow Mari Yamaguchi on Twitter at twitter.com/mariyamaguchi

Her work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/mari-yamaguchi

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