With an unpopular return to nuclear power generation, Japan can no longer ignore the elephant in the room: where is the country’s highly radioactive nuclear waste going?
The reboot Tuesday of a reactor at Kyushu Electric Power Co.’s Sendai plant in Kagoshima Prefecture comes as the government struggles to find a final disposal site for high-level nuclear waste.
Currently, around 17,000 tons is sitting in temporary storage pools across the country, and the restart means the generation of even more.
Spent fuel pools at some nuclear plants will reach their capacity in as soon as three years.
A spokeswoman at Kyushu Electric said the Sendai plant’s storage pools “still have enough room,” suggesting the utility is not planning to immediately take further measures. But they are expected to become full in roughly 11 years, according to official data.
International concerns are also growing over the increase in Japan’s possession of plutonium due to its potential for falling into the wrong hands and being used to make nuclear weapons. As of the end of 2014, Japan had 47.8 tons of plutonium, up 0.7 tons from a year earlier.
Under Japan’s nuclear fuel recycle policy, plutonium extracted by reprocessing conventional uranium fuel is consumed by reactors in the form of plutonium-uranium mixed oxide fuel, known as MOX. But its feasibility remains uncertain, given public concerns after the Fukushima disaster.
Currently, the government plans to store nuclear waste at a final repository more than 300 meters underground. It would sit there for up to 100,000 years until radiation levels fall low enough and there is no harm to the environment.
In 2002, the government-backed Nuclear Waste Management Organization of Japan began soliciting local governments to host a disposal site, touting economic benefits such as subsidies and jobs.
The process faced a setback in 2007, though, when the town of Toyo, Kochi Prefecture, withdrew after applying for screening as a candidate site. The mayor left office after losing the election he had called to let people judge his plan to host a disposal facility. His successor called it off.
Having waited in vain for volunteers to emerge, the government changed its basic policy. In May, the Cabinet of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe introduced a scheme allowing the government to choose candidate sites based on scientific grounds, including resistance to earthquakes.
The move also indicates the pro-nuclear government wants to show it is more actively engaged in addressing the issue, as public criticism has increased over the rush to restart reactors idled following the Fukushima disaster without a solution to the waste problem.
Industry observers say, however, the issue is unlikely to be resolved smoothly, especially amid heightened safety concerns among the public.
“In a situation where trust between the public and the nuclear industry has collapsed, it will be extremely difficult to gain support from people” for the government’s plan to nominate suitable sites, the Science Council of Japan, a representative body of scientists, said in its policy proposals released in April.
Finland is constructing the world’s first permanent disposal site for high-level radioactive waste in Olkiluoto with plans to operating it around 2020.
Many other countries with nuclear plants are still searching for potential locations. In the United States, a plan to build a disposal site in Nevada’s Yucca Mountain was canceled in 2009 due to local opposition.
Hideyuki Ban, co-director of the Citizens’ Nuclear Information Center, said finding a location to build a disposal site in Japan is even more difficult than in other countries due to the public’s sensitivity to nuclear power given the Fukushima crisis.
“For now, there is no national consensus at all on what to do with nuclear power generation down the road,” Ban said. “As the majority of people oppose nuclear power, surely there will be a backlash” against the government’s plan.
Since May, the government has been briefing municipalities on how it selects candidate sites.
Such meetings have been held in all 47 prefectures except Fukushima, but officials from some communities refused to take part out of fear their attendance might be considered a sign of their intention to accept a disposal site.
Questions have also arisen over the transparency of the process.
The central government held all of those briefings behind closed doors — without informing local residents of when and where they were held. That prompted some towns to boycott the meetings.
The government tried to justify the move by saying it was necessary to promote honest discussions.
“We were concerned that municipalities might not attend the meetings if we made it open to everyone, fearing that they might be mistaken for being interested in (hosting a final disposal site),” said Takuya Watanabe, deputy director at the industry ministry’s radioactive waste management policy division. “We will consider making them open next time.”
Ban, however, said it was “an extremely lame handling” by the government, adding that “transparency and fairness are the essential conditions if the government wants to achieve some sort of consensus.”
The government has said resolving the issue of where to locate a disposal facility is “the current generation’s responsibility.”
Nevertheless, it has so far failed to indicate any specific time frame, leaving the outlook for the project unclear.