Japan's Top Court Gives OK To Reopen Monju Fast Breeder Reactor
Japan's Supreme Court on Monday gave the green light to reopen an experimental reactor opposed by residents on safety concerns, in a landmark ruling on the country's nuclear energy program.
The Monju nuclear reactor located in Tsuruga, 350 kilometers (217 miles) west of Tokyo, was a signature of Japan's energy projects until December 1995 when it was closed due to a massive leak of sodium coolant.
The Nagoya High Court in January 2003 for the first time ordered the closure of a Japanese reactor, siding with a lawsuit filed before the accident by local people who wanted Monju shut down due to fears of a meltdown.
But the Supreme Court backed the government which said it has taken sufficient measures to ensure safety at Monju, administered by the government-run Japan Nuclear Cycle Development Institute.
"We cannot say that there were mistakes or oversights in discussions on safety measures or decision-making," the supreme court ruled.
"Therefore, we cannot say it is unconstitutional and we cannot nullify its approval," the court said.
The six billion-dollar, 280,000-kilowatt "fast-breeder" reactor designed to produce more plutonium than it consumes has been emblematic for Japan, which relies heavily on nuclear energy due to its lack of natural resources.
Even ahead of the Supreme Court ruling, local government authorities citing the economic impact of the plant had approved a plan to repair it and resume operation in 2008.
"The ruling means confirmation that safety inspections were proper," said Yuichi Tonozuka, head of the nuclear institute. "We are determined to do our best to resume operation."
But residents said the ruling had done nothing to ease their worries.
"There will undoubtedly be problems if they try to operate it," the plaintiffs' lawyer, Yuichi Kaido, told a news conference. "When that happens, it is the Supreme Court that will be put to shame."
No one was injured in the 1995 incident and no radiation was leaked, but the public was outraged after workers and officials involved in the project allegedly lied by hiding a video recording of the accident.
Concerns about safety at nuclear reactors grew further after five workers were killed in the nation's worst nuclear accident in 2004 at Mihama nuclear plant just 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) away from Monju.
Japan's nuclear energy reliance hit a peak of 36.8 percent for the year to March 1999 but plunged to some 25 percent in 2003 after power firms temporarily shut down reactors for emergency check-ups following accidents and cover-up scandals.
But the use of nuclear energy climbed back up to 29.1 percent in the year to March 2005 and the government has set a goal of 41 percent in 2010.
Currently, 54 nuclear reactors are operating in Japan to provide electricity.
Japan's insistence on the fast-breeder reactor project even after the 1995 accident is at odds with much of the developed world.
Major developed countries such as the United States, France and Germany have tried but abandoned the development of the controversial reactors due to huge development costs and concerns about the environment.
But India and China, developing countries concerned about a shortage of power in the near future, have both begun planning for the fast-breeders.
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