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Final disposal of nuclear waste is “the responsibility of the government”…but is it safe? What is happening in towns and villages in Hokkaido, where a literature review is underway

February 15, 2023
The Fumio Kishida administration is moving forward with the utilization of nuclear power. This time, he has put together a policy to take national responsibility for the final disposal of high-level radioactive waste from spent nuclear fuel. Despite the encouraging tone of the words, distrust is mounting. The government has emphasized “national responsibility” in its response to the accident at TEPCO’s Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station, but there have been instances in which the government has tended to act arbitrarily. What developments are expected in the future regarding the final disposal of the waste? How will this affect the towns of Sutsu and Kamieuchi in Hokkaido, where literature surveys are underway? (The following is a summary of the report by Yuzuru Miyahata and Naoaki Nishida.)
◆Spent nuclear fuel continues to accumulate
 The government will make a concerted and concerted effort toward the final disposal of the spent fuel. A ministerial meeting was held on October 10 to discuss the selection of a final disposal site for high-level radioactive waste. The draft revision of the basic policy presented at the meeting clearly stated the above passage. The policy is currently undergoing public comment, and if it is revised, it will be the first time in eight years, since 2015, that the policy has been revised.
 High-level radioactive waste from spent nuclear fuel is also known as “nuclear waste. At present, spent nuclear fuel continues to accumulate in storage pools at nuclear power plants, and vitrified waste, which is made by solidifying liquid waste with glass, is being processed.

Spent nuclear fuel from the new conversion reactor Fugen is stored in a pool at the Tokai Reprocessing Plant in Tokai-mura, Ibaraki Prefecture.

Nuclear waste is a troublesome problem because of its extremely high radioactivity and long life. According to the Final Disposal Law enacted in 2000, the plan is to dispose of nuclear waste in a geological formation deep underground, but due to safety concerns and other factors, a concrete roadmap has yet to be drawn.
 The government’s emphasis on its responsibility is a reflection of this situation. Since the enactment of the Final Disposal Law, a nationwide public call for proposals, known as the “hand-picked” method, began, and Toyo Town in Kochi Prefecture applied in 2007, but the application was withdrawn due to the fierce opposition of the townspeople. Currently, only the Hokkaido towns of Sutsu-cho and Kamieuchi-mura have accepted the “literature review,” the first step in the selection process.
 According to the Agency for Natural Resources and Energy of the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI), approximately 160 explanatory meetings were held throughout Japan over the past five years, but interest in the project was limited. On the other hand, in the case of the other countries where final disposal sites have been decided, the number of candidate sites was narrowed down from about 10 to only one. The person in charge said, “As a result of the survey, there is opposition from the public and the fact that it cannot be used as a disposal site. We need more candidate sites,” he said.
◆Disbelief in government policy: “Can we really do this?
 Under the current system, the Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NUMO), to which the power companies contribute the project cost, is responsible for selecting the disposal site and the disposal itself. However, because of the difficulties in selecting a disposal site, when the basic policy was revised in 2003, the government stepped up to the plate by presenting areas that were considered highly suitable. This time, however, the government “decided to step it up a notch,” according to the person in charge of the matter mentioned above.
 While Professor Yo Fujimura of Kanagawa Institute of Technology understands that “the national government is responsible for the nuclear power policy because it is a national policy,” he also has some concerns. The national government must not force the local communities to do something.
 At the root of his concern is a distrust of the national government. He wonders, “Have the national government and electric power companies done anything to earn our trust in their response to the accident at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant? For example, the cleanup of contaminated water at the Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. When he was prime minister, Yoshihide Suga said that the government would take responsibility for the situation, but he turned a deaf ear to the opposition to releasing the water into the ocean and decided to release it after it had been treated.
 Even though the government is moving forward with the final disposal of the waste, some doubt whether it can really be done.
 It is said that it will take 100,000 years for high-level radioactive waste to become safe. Hideyuki Hirakawa, a professor of science, technology, and society at Osaka University, said, “Japan is an earthquake-prone country. There are active faults everywhere. If a problem is found after moving the waste deep underground, will it be possible to remove the radioactive waste? I have not lost faith in the technology related to nuclear power plants. And how can we be sure of safety 100,000 years from now?

◆The reason why the survey is not progressing is because of the upcoming election.
 Now that the Kishida administration has declared that “the national government will take responsibility for the final disposal of the waste,” what do the people of Sutou Town and Kamieuchi Village, where the literature review is underway, think?
 The literature review for both towns and villages, which began in November 2020, is still ongoing. Initially scheduled to take about two years, a NUMO spokesperson said, “It is taking longer than expected. We are in the process of asking a working group at METI for their thoughts on how to evaluate the survey results. We have not yet decided how long it will take,” he said.
 Once the literature review using geological maps and academic papers is completed, NUMO plans to move on to an overview survey to examine the geology and ground conditions, based on the wishes of the local community. This is the second phase of the survey.
 Masayuki Domon, 69, a member of the Kamieuchi Village Council who announced his opposition to the literature survey three years ago, wonders if the reason the survey has not been completed after two years is because an election is coming up. The “election” referred to here is the village council election scheduled for April. Given the current situation in which many village council members are in favor of the project, he suspects that they do not want to make waves.
 Mr. Domon said, “Time has passed without sufficient explanation to the villagers. The governor has clearly stated that he will not accept the summary survey, so we have no choice but to urge the village mayor to keep in step with us,” he told himself.
◆Divided opinions and broken relationships

On the other hand, Kazuyuki Tsuchiya, 74, a member of an opposition group in the town of Sutomachi, said of the Kishida administration, “To put it simply, it’s just infuriating. When they emphasize that ‘the final disposal is the responsibility of the national government,’ it sounds like ‘the national government is pushing hard for the selection of a disposal site in towns and villages where investigations are underway. What the government says cannot be trusted at all.
 The town’s ordinance stipulates that a referendum will be held when the town moves from a literature review to an overview survey, but the mayor’s decision is not binding.
 The town council’s opinion carries weight, and currently it is split evenly between those in favor and those opposed. However, “I am having a hard time finding a candidate,” he said. In this small town, the people are closely knit, and some of them have lost their relationships with each other because of the split in support of and against the project.
 He is also wary of how the proponents of the project will react to the briefing by NUMO representatives, saying, “Even if they call it a ‘place for dialogue,’ the actual situation is different. It has become a place for one side to express its viewpoints. He fears that the NUMO representatives will be more inclusive of the proponents and more likely to cut off opponents.
 On October 10, the Kishida administration passed a cabinet decision on the “Basic Policy for the Realization of Green Transformation (GX),” which includes the active use of nuclear power plants. The timing of the decision to present the draft basic policy on final disposal at the time of the outbreak of objections underscored the “responsibility of the national government.
◆ “It is only making the local communities suffer and be troubled.
 Tatsujiro Suzuki, a professor of nuclear policy at Nagasaki University, said, “If there is no final disposal site, they will blame us even more. We are only aware of such voices. It has a strong sense of appeal.” He doubts the intention of the government to deflect criticism. He then added, “Even if we say we will focus on the selection of a disposal site, the Federation of Electric Power Companies of Japan (DENJI-REN) will be in charge of the process. There will be no particular change.
 While discussion of a final disposal site is inevitable, it would be problematic to proceed without the consent of the local residents, as was the case in the town of Sutsu and the village of Kamieuchi.
 Tsunehide Chino, associate professor of environmental sociology at Shinshu University, said, “The government has often used the phrase ‘government-led promotion of understanding’ with regard to the final disposal site, but even looking at the two Hokkaido towns and villages today, there is no consensus of opinion, and in fact, this is causing division. This has only caused distress and pain to the local communities,” he continued. The problem is that the administration has not faced up to the harsh reality of the situation and has taken the easy way out by not trying to gain the public’s understanding. The government should abandon its technological and economic optimism that nuclear power is safe and that the cost of electricity will go down.
◆Desk Memo
 When nuclear power plants are operated, waste is generated. But, since a disposal site has not been decided, the amount of waste is accumulating. It is difficult to manage it. It is also hard to find a place to put it. What should be done is obvious. Stop the nuclear power plants, prevent the increase in waste, and in the meantime, discuss where to dispose of the waste. However, the government has a policy of operating nuclear power plants. The more waste we generate, the more trouble we have to clean up. They are irrationally thinking and acting arbitrarily. The situation is too bad. (Sakaki)


February 19, 2023 - Posted by | Japan | , ,

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