Nuclear power, a reaffirmed priority for Japan to achieve carbon neutrality

Eleven years after the Fukushima disaster, riding the wave of the atom as a solution to climate change, Japan is increasing the signs of a comeback in nuclear power. Japan Atomic Energy Agency (JAEA) and giant Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (MHI) to sign – “At the latest next week”, according to the JAEA, contacted on Wednesday January 5, while MHI refuses to comment – a memorandum of understanding with the American nuclear start-up TerraPower, to provide it with technical support and share data as part of the reactor project Natrium.

Unveiled by TerraPower in August 2020, this new fast neutron reactor with a power of 345 megawatts and an estimated cost of $ 4 billion (3.5 billion euros) should be built in 2028 in the State of Wyoming. Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates supports the project, as does the US Department of Energy.

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Designed in cooperation with the Japanese-American joint venture GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy, the Natrium comprises a sodium-cooled fast neutron reactor combined with an energy storage system based on molten salts. “Natrium technology is a reliable, carbon-free energy solution designed to address climate concerns before it is too late”, ensures TerraPower on its website.

Return of evacuated populations

Fast neutron reactors, or breeder reactors, should make it possible to finalize the nuclear fuel cycle by recycling the plutonium from the spent fuel. Japan has been interested in it since the 1960s and built – with the JAEA and MHI – a prototype called “Joyo”, in 1977, then the breeder plant at Monju, in the Fukui department, in the center of the country. Despite costing over 1,200 billion yen (9.2 billion euros), Monju has only operated for one hour since the criticality level reached in 1994 and experienced a serious sodium leak in 1995. In 2016 , the government decided to dismantle it, without giving up technology. Tokyo turned to the French project for a fast neutron reactor Astrid, also abandoned in 2019.

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Japanese perseverance reflects a desire to revive a nuclear industry damaged since the Fukushima disaster in March 2011. This disaster was followed by the shutdown of all 54 Japanese reactors and aroused strong opposition to the atom in population.

The administration of Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, who came to power in October 2021, seems to have made nuclear a priority again, for economic and environmental reasons

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