Japan restarts reactor shut after accident 14 years ago

TOKYO — 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 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 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 abandoned their attempts because they are not safe, are not economically viable, and pose nuclear proliferation risks, the civil group Citizens' Nuclear Information Center said recently.