Storing Tepco’s radioactive waste

The plan to build facilities around the crippled Fukushima No.1 Nuclear Power Plant of Tokyo Electric Power Co. to store radioactive waste collected through decontamination of the areas hit by the March 2011 meltdowns at the plant will finally move forward with the go-ahead given by Fukushima Gov. Yuhei Sato. Although the facilities are expected to remove one of the obstacles to Fukushima’s reconstruction from the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl, the government still needs to realize that for people who were forced out of their hometowns by the 2011 crisis, giving up their property for construction of the facilities will be a hard decision because it means parting with their land.

The government still needs to negotiate with about 2,000 residents who own the candidate sites for the facilities to acquire roughly 16 sq. km of land. It will accept rental contracts with some residents to address their concern that despite the government’s plan to keep the waste there for just 30 years, the facilities could end up becoming permanent storage sites.

Currently large bags of radiation-tainted soil and other waste gathered in the decontamination operation are stored in more than 50,000 locations around Fukushima Prefecture — mostly in the yards of private homes and on business premises, but also on school grounds and in public parks, with the contents spilling out from tears in some of the bags. The total amount of such waste has reached 15 million tons in the prefecture alone and is forecast to eventually hit 30 million tons.

The widespread presence of this waste is a hindrance to the rebuilding of many people’s lives in Fukushima, so the sooner the storage facilities are built, the better. Talks with the prefecture and the towns of Okuma and Futaba, which host the Tepco plant, moved forward after the government promised a total of ¥301 billion in grants over 30 years after use of the facilities begins. The grants are about three times larger than the amount initially proposed by the government. However, the government should not think that it was ultimately money that mattered in the negotiations, as Environment Minister Nobuteru Ishihara suggested in controversial remarks he made earlier.

The protracted negotiations over construction of the storage facilities were threatening to divide municipalities in the prefecture. While the towns of Okuma and Futaba — whose residents were forced to leave due to the radiation fallout from the 2011 disaster — agonized over whether to accept the facilities, other municipalities in the more populous parts of Fukushima called for the prompt construction of the storage facilities. The latter hope that transfer of the waste to the storage facilities would facilitate the return of their own residents. Meanwhile, much of the land comprising the towns of Okuma and Futaba remains off-limits to residents due to the high levels of lingering radiation, and the situation is not expected to change for a long time.

The government needs to understand and address the complex sentiments of local landowners as it proceeds with negotiations for land acquisitions. Concern lingers on whether the government will honor its words that the waste will remain there for only 30 years and then be moved for final disposal at a site outside of Fukushima. The government must keep in mind that the storage facilities will not be completed without the trust of local parties, including the landowners.