The Japanese Atomic Energy Agency and the Japanese industrialist Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (MHI) announced on Thursday a memorandum of understanding with TerraPower, a U.S. company founded and chaired by Bill Gates planning to build a fast neutron nuclear reactor in the United States.
MHI will explore opportunities to provide technical support and participate in the development of this fourth-generation reactor to be built by 2028 in Wyoming (western United States), according to a statement from the Japanese group. By collaborating on this advanced nuclear project, MHI also expects to draw expertise and know-how to contribute to the advancement of nuclear innovation in Japan, it said.
The Japanese nuclear industry is still convalescent and controversial since the Fukushima disaster in 2011. But the Japanese government hopes to revive this sector to reduce the archipelago's high energy dependence and its high CO2 emissions. All the country's atomic power plants were shut down after the Fukushima accident, caused by a terrible tsunami in the northeast of the country.
Only ten Japanese reactors have restarted since then, after pharaonic works to improve their safety. Fifty other reactors have been shut down, more than half of them permanently. TerraPower's Natrium project, estimated to cost $4 billion and half of which is financed by the U.S. Department of Energy, consists of building a 345-megawatt sodium-cooled fast neutron reactor.
This so-called fast breeder technology should allow the reuse of plutonium from spent fuel. In 2014, the Japanese Atomic Energy Agency and MHI had partnered with the French Astrid breeder project, but it was frozen by France in 2019.
Japan has long been interested in this technology, having built two experimental reactors of this type on its soil between the 1970s and 1990s, Joyo and Monju. After several incidents, including a serious one in 1995, the Monju breeder reactor (located in Fukui Prefecture, in the southwest of the archipelago) was shut down and the decision to dismantle it was made in 2016.
President of TerraPower since its creation in 2006, the American multi-billionaire Bill Gates, founder and former boss of Microsoft, sees in the new generation of nuclear power a way to eventually achieve carbon neutrality in the world to fight against global warming.