Japan to Boost Science Spending, Reduce Support for Nuclear Power

TOKYO—Japan's ministry of education wants to boost overall science-related spending next year by 5.8%, to $14.7 billion. But amid increasing support for most programs there is one big loser: nuclear power. Spending on nuclear-related research will drop 9.8%, to $2.3 billion. A large chunk of that reduction applies to Monju, the troubled experimental fast breeder reactor. The allocation essentially puts Monju on hold pending a review of the nation's energy policy.

"We want to think about the role of Monju" within a broader energy policy, education minister Masaharu Nakagawa said at a press briefing today unveiling the budget request for fiscal 2012, which starts in April. He said Monju and other nuclear fuel cycle efforts would receive a "maintenance budget" of $445 million. "But there will be a bit of a hiatus in new research and development efforts until the long-term direction [of energy policy] is settled," he added.

The education ministry accounts for the bulk of Japan's science spending, particularly for basic research. Details on governmentwide science spending are not yet available. Requested budgets are usually adopted by the Japanese legislature with minimal changes.

Japan has pursued fast-breeder technology, through which a reactor can produce more plutonium than it burns in hopes of cutting or eliminating imports of nuclear fuel. The ill-starred Monju reached initial criticality in April 1995 but then suffered a disastrous coolant leak and fire in December 1995. Officials tried to cover up the extent of the accident, resulting in a public backlash that kept Monju idle until May 2010. But shortly after restarting operations, a mechanical problem put Monju out of action again.

The 11 March earthquake and tsunami damage caused extensive damage to the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant and the release of massive amounts of radiation. A number of politicians have called for Japan to phase out nuclear power, though the government's official policy of increasing reliance on nuclear power has not changed. "There is no talk of stopping nuclear power generation all at once," Nakagawa said. And he emphasized the need to continue research into nuclear safety and the handling of waste. But Nakagawa expects the discussion of energy policy will include "what to do about Monju."

While tapping the brakes on nuclear power research, the ruling Democratic Party has proposed $918 million in new programs to accelerate efforts on renewable and alternative energy schemes. It is also boosting by 50% the budget for ITER, the experimental fusion reactor being built by an international consortium in France, to $294 million. Other winners include work on induced pluripotent stem cells and regenerative medicine, which gets a 40% increase to $69 million, and space-related research, including Earth observation, which will go up by 36% to $631 million.

Rank-and-file researchers will be pleased with a 6% increase, to $3 billion, in the competitively reviewed grants they rely on. A large share of the increase will go to a multiyear grant category created last year. Previously these grants had to be spent in the year they were awarded. The new scheme "has been positively received by researchers," Nakagawa says.

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