ITER and Monju on the Chopping Block?

An advisory panel on 20 November called on the Japanese government to cut funding next year for the ITER fusion reactor project and the Monju experimental fast breeder reactor. The recommendations reflect increasing doubts about the country's longstanding policy emphasizing reliance on nuclear power in the wake of the Fukushima meltdown. Although the panel's advice is unlikely to be fully implemented, it may influence official policy.

Nuclear research was the first area in the proposed budget for the fiscal year starting 1 April tackled by the Government Revitalization Unit, a committee of ruling party legislators and private sector experts charged with making wide-ranging policy reform proposals. According to press reports, the panel recommended cutting $29 million of spending on Monju. Fast breeder technology can produce more plutonium than it burns, which would reduce Japan's nuclear fuel imports. But Monju has been plagued by technical glitches, accidents, and cover-ups that have put the project at least 15 years behind its original schedule. It is currently not operating. The ministry of education had asked for $445 million to "maintain" Monju and other nuclear fuel cycle R&D facilities while putting actual research on hold.

The panel also urged Japan to renegotiate its planned $381 million contribution to ITER for next year in light of the country's fiscal burdens, which have been exacerbated by the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear crisis. The €16 billion project is building an experimental fusion reactor at Cadarache in France to demonstrate the viability of fusion power. Japan has been one of the project's most enthusiastic backers. It campaigned to host the reactor but conceded that honor to the European Union after a protracted battle for support from the other partners. As a consolation prize, Japan hosts a facility looking into ancillary aspects of fusion power. Previous governments have never wavered in their support for ITER.

It was not immediately clear what the proposed cuts would mean for the two programs. A spokesperson for the Japan Atomic Energy Agency declined to comment. Any cuts may not be as big as the committee recommends. Two years ago, the panel called for large cuts in funding for Japan's next-generation supercomputer and other big-ticket projects, but in the end the impact on proposed spending was minor.

The revitalization unit will be meeting four times in the coming weeks to review spending in other areas of science, education and telecommunications.