The Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry has decided to call for storing high-level radioactive waste in ways that make it accessible in the future, instead of the burying it underground for good, informed sources said.
METI officials believe radioactive waste should be retrievable because better disposal techniques could be discovered in the future.
The idea is apparently designed to make it easier for the ministry to convince municipalities to host disposal facilities. It is unclear, however, whether the new plan will help ease the public’s concerns as the central government hopes.
METI will discuss the plan further at a working group of the Advisory Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, the sources said.
A law enacted in 2000 demands that high-level radioactive waste be buried at least 300 meters underground for final disposal.
The method assumes that spent nuclear fuel should be reprocessed to extract uranium and plutonium for recycling and that the leftover waste be vitrified and buried for good. The waste, which is usually mixed with glass, emits extremely strong radiation for tens of thousands of years.
However, the Japan Nuclear Fuel Ltd.’s trouble-prone Rokkasho reprocessing plant in Aomori Prefecture has yet to start operations, prompting the government to propose the rule change.
U.S. officials and experts have expressed strong reservations about the plan to run the nuclear fuel reprocessing plant in Aomori, because all of Japan’s reactors remain idled by the crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.
Apart from making radioactive waste retrievable, the government will also study the option of “direct disposal,” or the disposal of unprocessed spent nuclear fuel in the ground, the sources said.
The study is likely to be conducted at the Japan Atomic Energy Agency’s strata study centers in Hokkaido and Gifu Prefecture.
The study will include possible effects that new disposal techniques could have on existing facilities.
Japan’s nuclear power plants have accumulated 24,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel to date, making it important to develop safe and reliable disposal methods.
Government efforts to choose candidate sites for the disposal facilities have made little progress in the past 13 years due to staunch opposition in local communities leery of hosting radioactive waste.