January 2003

High court nullifies approval of Monju reactor

Kyodo News Agency, Kanazawa, January 27, 2003

[Posted 28/01/2003]

The Nagoya High Court on Monday overturned a lower court ruling, nullifying the government's approval of the trouble-plagued Monju fast-breeder nuclear reactor in Tsuruga, Fukui Prefecture, and effectively keeping it shut down.

In a landmark decision that ruled in favor of residents seeking a halt to the construction and operation of the nuclear reactor, the ruling supported plaintiffs' claim blaming a massive leak of sodium coolant at the plant in 1995 on shortcomings in pre-construction safety assessments.

''Flaws exist in the safety assessments needed to prevent an accident like the leakage of radioactive material inside a reactor to the neighbouring environment,'' presiding Judge Kazuo Kawasaki said in the ruling at the court's Kanazawa branch. ''Thus the possibility of concrete threats cannot be discounted.''

Previously, only the ruling by the Matsuyama District Court in December 2000 had pointed out similar shortcomings in the government's safety assessment for a nuclear reactor.

The state-run Japan Nuclear Cycle Development Institute was planning to work on renovating the 280,000-kilowatt reactor, which has been shut down since the accident, with a view to reactivating it in the future.

The high court said, however, that the government's approval last December of the nuclear developer's plan to modify the plant ''will not alter the conclusion that the (initial) approval is now annulled.''

Thus, in asking the government for a new safety reassessment, Monday's ruling has made such resumption of operations at the reactor difficult.

The latest ruling has called into question the safety of the Monju-type plutonium-producing fast-breeder reactors, casting doubt on the government's nuclear fuel policy based on such reactors.

''This marks a crucial ruling that has overturned the basis of Monju. There is no prospect of it ever being revived,'' a lawyer for the plaintiffs said.

The government began consulting with ministries and agencies involved to decide whether to appeal the high court ruling to the Supreme Court, government officials said.

In March 2000, the Fukui District Court dismissed the suit filed by local residents, saying the fast-breeder reactor's basic design was not at fault in the accident.

The reactor was operating at 40% of capacity when the sodium coolant leak occurred, sparking a fire. The governmental operator of the plant tried to cover up the accident and submitted a falsified report.

The 32 plaintiffs, mainly residents of Tsuruga, asked the high court to overturn the district court ruling that rejected their 1985 suit seeking annulment of the government's permission to build the plant, which began in October 1985 in the city on the Sea of Japan coast some 370 kilometers west of Tokyo.

The lower court said the reactor does not pose ''any visible danger'' to the lives or health of the plaintiffs despite the accident. The suit was initially filed with the district court in September 1985.

In the appeal, the plaintiffs said the lower court declared the reactor safe based on the basic design of conventional light-water reactors powered by uranium. They said the light-water type is completely different from fast-breeder reactors, which use plutonium-uranium mixed-oxide fuel.

They said almost no safety assessments were done based on fast-breeder reactors, and added the ruling wrongly concluded that the reactor would be safe based on testimony by the defendants.

Monju is an experimental reactor designated by the government as a prototype for future reactor models that would play a key part in the government's nuclear fuel recycling policy, under which plutonium will be produced through spent-fuel reprocessing.

The government spends about 10 billion yen annually to maintain the reactor, spending roughly 90 billion yen over the seven years since its suspension.

The government spent a total of 780 billion yen on the Monju project, including 580 billion yen for building the reactor, according to the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology.

The ministry estimates that by 2020, total expenditures would add up to 1 trillion yen, while estimating 180 billion yen in revenue from selling power generated by the reactor.

If the reactor were to be scrapped, it would cost 170 billion yen, according to a ministry estimate.

By burning plutonium-uranium mixed oxide, fast-breeder reactors like Monju can produce more plutonium than they consume. Plutonium, an extremely toxic substance, can be used to make nuclear warheads.

The Monju reactor, though shut down, still has about 1.4 tons of plutonium inside it.

A number of countries, including Britain, Germany, France and the United States, have scrapped projects for fast-breeder reactors after a series of accidents involving the reactors.

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