Storing Fukushima’s radioactive waste

The plan to build interim facilities to store contaminated soil and other radioactive waste from the cleanup efforts in Fukushima Prefecture finally appears to be moving forward now that local authorities have singled out two municipalities as storage sites.

While the construction of waste storage facilities is expected to speed up the lagging decontamination efforts that are vital to the reconstruction of the areas hit by the 2011 nuclear disaster, the government needs to realize that it will be a painful step for the thousands of local residents, who had their livelihood destroyed by the crisis, to now have to give up their land.

Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, which suffered triple meltdowns in the wake of the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami, straddles the towns of Okuma and Futaba. Among the many communities in Fukushima affected by the disaster, most of the land in these two towns has been designated as “difficult” for evacuated residents to return to for a long time due to high levels of radiation contamination.

Nearly three years after the disaster, the reconstruction of the areas hit by the nuclear crisis has been slowed by the presence of the massive radioactive waste, including contaminated soil, that has been piling up everywhere. The construction of interim facilities to store this waste is clearly an urgent task.

In early February, Fukushima Gov. Yuhei Sato, based on a proposal by the Environment Ministry, requested in a meeting with the mayors of local municipalities that the interim facilities be built in Okuma and Futaba. Under the government’s plan, the facilities will be constructed on a total of 16 sq. km of land north and south of the premises of the Fukushima No. 1 plant. They will store up to 28 million cubic meters of contaminated soil and other waste containing over 100,000 becquerels of radiation per kilogram.

The government says the waste will be moved out of Fukushima Prefecture in 30 years for final disposal, although it remains uncertain how and where the waste will be disposed.

As part of its policy turnaround from the previous administration’s position of having Tepco pay the bills for Fukushima decontamination, the government will pour ¥1 trillion in public funds for construction of the interim storage facilities and buy up land from thousands of local landowners.

If the project goes ahead as planned, it will be a complicated process involving the various interests of local residents and authorities. Working closely with the municipalities in the area, the government needs to put priority on rebuilding the livelihood of the people affected by the nuclear disaster — whether they intend to return to their hometowns in the future or not.

For the affected residents of Okuma and Futaba, the construction of the interim waste storage facilities further diminishes the prospect of their returning to their hometowns. The project, which will be crucial to accelerating the reconstruction efforts, needs their consent. To move the plan forward, efforts must be made to ensure that these residents participate in the process so it can move forward as smoothly as possible.