A Renewed U.S. Interest in Japan's Fast Reactor?

Nuclear cooperation. U.S. Deputy Energy Secretary Daniel Poneman is interested in Japan's Monju experimental fast reactor.

D. Normile

Nuclear power experts from Japan and the United States met in Tokyo today, and one surprising topic of conversation was the host country's Monju experimental fast reactor. "The possibility of cooperative work with Japan in the area of fast reactors is something that is attractive to us precisely because they have Monju," Daniel Poneman, the U.S. deputy secretary of energy, said at a press conference today.

Poneman is in Japan for the inaugural meeting of the U.S.-Japan Bilateral Commission on Civil Nuclear Cooperation, an initiative launched in April by President Barack Obama and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda to work on nuclear issues such as nonproliferation, emergency response, and waste. One attractive feature of fast reactors is that they can produce more fuel than they consume, avoiding the issue of the limited supplies of the uranium used in conventional nuclear reactors. Poneman said Monju came up in the discussions because of the possibility of using fast reactors to burn plutonium and the long-lived isotopes of elements such as neptunium and americium that account for much of the radiotoxicity of nuclear waste. "If you could use fast reactors to burn down plutonium that would be a good thing," Poneman said. America's last fast reactor, the Experimental Breeder Reactor-II operated by Argonne National Laboratory, was shut down in 1994.

Monju has a troubled history. A succession of mishaps and a scandal over an attempt to cover up an accident have kept the facility shut down for all but a few months since it first achieved criticality, or a sustained nuclear reaction, in 1994. The program is currently on hold, with just enough funding for maintenance, while the government works on a new energy strategy that is due to be unveiled next month. Government officials have said that abandoning the Monju program is one option on the table.