Japan restarts troubled fast-breeder reactor for first time in 14 years

TOKYO (AP) — Japan restarted a costly fast-breeder nuclear reactor Thursday for the first time since it was shut down 14 years ago because of a major accident and cover-up.

After getting a final government go-ahead, workers began Thursday removing control rods from the plutonium-fired reactor in the northern fishing town of Tsuruga, said Toshihisa Sakurai, a spokesman for the Japan Atomic Energy Agency.

The experimental reactor Monju, which means wisdom, uses plutonium fuel instead of conventional uranium and produces radioactive substances that can be reused as fuel. It would reach operating level Saturday and continue its test runs before entering full-fledged operation in 2013.

Monju's initial start-up in August 1995 lasted only four months. It was shut down on Dec. 8 of that year when more than a ton of volatile liquid sodium leaked from a secondary cooling system. No one was hurt and no radioactivity escaped, but Monju's operators came under fire for concealing videotape that showed extensive damage to the reactor.

The accident and cover-up created widespread public concern over the safety of nuclear power.

Opponents say fast-breeder nuclear generation is too expensive and is unsafe because of the dangers associated with handling plutonium, which is highly radioactive and could be used to produce nuclear weapons.

The multi-billion-dollar project, which dates back to late 1960s, is part of Japan's ambitious nuclear fuel recycling program. Japan hopes to put the fast-breeder reactor into commercial use around 2050.

The U.S., Britain, France and Germany, which were former leaders in fast-breeder projects, have all abandoned their attempts because they are not safe, are not economically viable, pose nuclear proliferation risks and failed to gain social acceptance, opponents said.

"We are deeply concerned about the grave risks involved with the restart of the Monju," Hideyuki Ban, co-director of a civil group Citizens' Nuclear Information Center, said in a statement Thursday. The group demanded the reactor be closed permanently. "It is a great irony that Monju is being restarted when unprecedented international attention is being given to nuclear security."

Japan has already spent more than 900 billion yen ($9.5 billion) on the Monju reactor and would have to spend about 23 billion yen ($240 million) in annual running costs for the next several years.

For local officials, Monju's resumption could mean a chance to boost the economy.

In providing local consent to Monju's reopening last month, Fukui Gov. Issei Nishikawa asked Economy, Trade and Industry Minister Masayuki Naoshima for financial assistance and an extension of a "bullet" express train line to the city.

Japan's 55 nuclear reactors supply 35 percent of the country's electricity. The government wants to build about a dozen more new plants and raise output to around 40 percent of the national supply for the next 20 years.

The nuclear energy industry in Japan has been plagued by safety violations, reactor malfunctions and accidents.

The Fukui region also was the scene of Japan's deadliest-ever nuclear-plant accident, when a corroded cooling pipe — carrying boiling water and superheated steam — burst at a plant in Mihama in August, 2004, killing five workers. No radiation was released in that accident.