TOYAMA – More than six years after the March 11, 2011, Tohoku quake, tsunami, and triple meltdown at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, Japan is accelerating efforts to restart as many reactors as it possibly can. Four have been revived so far, and Kansai Electric Power Co. plans to restart the Takahama No. 3 unit soon.
But the rush to restart them has only highlighted the fact that Japan still has no final repository for its high-level radioactive waste. Original plans to first reprocess spent fuel at the Rokkasho facility in Aomori Prefecture before final disposal somewhere else have long been stalled. After 17 years asking prefectures and municipalities around the country to host such a site, no takers have been found.
So the government has changed its approach, saying it will draw up a map by this summer of “scientifically appropriate” candidate sites around the country.
To explain what that means, a series of town hall meetings are taking place at select locations this month and next month.
On May 20, officials from the Agency for Natural Resources and the Nuclear Waste Management Organization of Japan (NUMO) were in Toyama, which is less than 50 km from the Shika nuclear power plant in neighboring Ishikawa Prefecture.
At present, there are about 18,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel stored in about 40,000 canisters at Japan’s nuclear power plants, said NUMO Executive Director Shinichi Ito. A final disposal site for high-level waste produced when, or if, the fuel is reprocessed would need to be quite large. Most of it would be underground, with an elaborate tunnel system of transport vehicles to deliver and store the waste.
“In terms of scale, above-ground facilities at a final depository would be between 1 to 2 sq. km, and the underground portion would be 6 to 10 sq. km in area, located at a depth of more than 300 meters from the surface. There would be some 200 km of tunnels in total for the storage facilities,” Ito said.
Waste would be stored at the site for around a half century. The basic cost for building a final depository is ¥3.7 trillion.
In drawing up the map of what constitutes a scientifically appropriate site, the government has a list of conditions and standards based on what it does not want.
A site should not be built within a 15-km radius of a volcano, and not near active fault lines at least 10 km long. In addition, it should not be situated in area where there is a lot of geothermal activity.
The government is also seeking a site that is within 20 km of a port where ships carrying the waste could dock, since transporting waste by ship, the government says, is the most appropriate method.
Iwao Miyamoto, director of the public relations office of the Agency for Natural Resources’ Radioactive Waste Management Office, said that, after the map is publicized and dialogue takes place with authorities deemed to have appropriate sites, a three-stage survey process would be carried out.
“The first stage would be to research the seismological and geological history of a potential site, checking to see how frequently earthquakes and volcanoes in and around the area have occurred,” Miyamoto said. “The second stage would be on-site drilling to determine how porous the rock bed is, and the third step is a precision survey to determine if the site can handle an underground storage facility.
“The first survey stage is expected to take two years, the second stage four years, and the final stage around 14 years,” he added.
In an attempt to entice the authorities at a chosen site, the central government will offer funding and economic incentives that the municipalities hosting nuclear power plants have long enjoyed.
“NUMO will work with a government that accepts a final storage facility to renovate and expand its roads, ports, and information systems,” Ito said. “There will also be donations for revitalizing the local economy via support for locally produced goods and for local culture.”
However, overcoming local political resistance in an area judged appropriate for a final depository is likely to be a long, difficult road. Nobody wants to be known as the town or village with a nuclear waste dump, and questions remain about the safety of transporting toxic waste by land or by sea.
Some governors in prefectures with many reactors have made it clear they will oppose any effort by the central government or utilities to bury nuclear waste on site or beside the plant that generated it.
“Fukui has accepted nuclear power plants. But it has no obligation to accept final disposal of nuclear waste,” Fukui Gov. Issei Nishikawa said in 2015. Fukui is home to 13 commercial reactors.
“We have our hands full just dealing with the nuclear reactors we have now,” Saga Gov. Yoshinori Yamaguchi said last year, indicating his prefecture would not accept being the site of a final repository. Saga hosts the four reactors at the Genkai plant run by Kyushu Electric. Yamaguchi approved the restart of Genkai units 3 and 4 in April.
Once the map is published, it is sure to galvanize opinion in those places judged appropriate and become a politically delicate topic. Yet with Agency for Natural Resources estimates showing the spent fuel pools of 17 power plants will run out of space within the next 15 years, if run continuously, the problem of final disposal grows more acute with each passing day. Pressure on those areas that fit the requirements for final disposal is likely to be intense.
At this point, though, the central government says that if a local government with a site deemed appropriate by the map still refuses once the survey begins, that will be the end of it.
“If there is official opposition at the local level at any stage of a survey, there would be no advancement to the next stage,” Miyamoto said.
However, given all of the problems Japan has had trying to make its reprocessing program work, critics say that attempting to draw up a plan for a final repository is a pipe dream.
” The Japanese government knows the current final nuclear waste repository program will never materialize. The whole project depends upon the creation of high-level vitrified waste canisters, i.e. the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel. But the program also depends on Japan recovering and consuming tons and tons of plutonium
” The Rokkasho reprocessing plant’s commercial operation has been delayed 23 times, and the fast reactor program to consume the plutonium is at square one despite over a half century of effort,” said Aileen Mioko Smith of Kyoto-based Green Action.