Storing radioactive waste

Eight months since disaster struck Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, the cleanup of areas contaminated by radioactive substances and the safe storage of contaminated soil and waste are pressing issues.

The central government on Oct. 29 announced a plan to construct within three years an intermediate storage facility to bury contaminated soil and other waste in Fukushima Prefecture.

The concrete facility will cover 3 to 5 square kilometers and have a capacity of 15 million to 28 million cubic meters. The central government will have to negotiate with local governments in Fukushima Prefecture to decide on a site for the facility in 2012 and start building it in the summer of 2014. The facility will start accepting contaminated soil and other waste around January 2015.

The facility will be in use for 30 years at most. While it would seem logical to laymen to construct a final storage facility at the site of the already highly contaminated Fukushima nuclear power plant to ensure that dangerous waste does not pollute new areas, the government has expressed a desire to locate it outside the prefecture.

At present, there are no immediate prospects for finding a site for the intermediate storage facility. The central government’s talks with Fukushima local governments to pick a site will be extremely difficult. It should carry out the talks with sincerity with full explanations. It also should quickly develop technologies to separate radioactive substances from contaminated soil and other waste.

If the central government cannot convincingly explain where it plans to build a final storage facility, what its nuclear energy policy will be like and how it will reconstruct areas around the Fukushima No. 1 plant, the talks will not go smoothly.

A delay in the talks will make it difficult for the central government to explain how long temporary storage facilities, to be built in each Fukushima municipality, should be used. This will hamper the construction of such facilities. Until they are built, decontamination work will not proceed quickly.

As a short-term solution, the central government should give enough financial and technical support to municipalities that want to decontaminate areas near schools, neighborhoods and hot spots before the start of the snow season.

If the government lays out a clear policy to phase out nuclear power generation, this will help smooth the negotiations for an intermediate storage facility.