OSAKA – On July 28, the central government released what it called a scientific, specialized map of the country highlighting areas where highly radioactive nuclear waste from the nation’s power plants might, or might not, be safely buried underground for as long as 100,000 years.
The multicolored map (link to a PDF version) is further divided into regional blocks identifying locations in each prefecture where conditions are judged to be most favorable — both in geological terms (i.e., lack of active fault lines or low risk of volcanoes) and ease of transport — for burying high-level waste. It also indicated where such burial would pose scientific and logistical challenges.
The general response from Hokkaido to Okinawa was: “Not in my backyard.”
Regardless of whether the government will continue its policy of putting back in operation as many reactors as possible, Japan — like most countries that embraced nuclear power five decades ago without arrangements for long-term waste — now finds that it needs to build disposal facilities sooner rather than later. However, local opposition to hosting nuclear waste may not be easily overcome.
What is the map and what’s the official plan for the waste?
The map shows areas in the country the government has deemed either favorable or unfavorable to build underground waste storage facilities for high-level nuclear waste that would be in operation for as long as 100,000 years, at least in theory. Waste currently stored at nuclear power plants would be transported by truck or ship to final disposal sites, where the radioactive materials would then be transferred via automated trains at least 300 meters underground.
The map has four colors. Dark green indicates favorable conditions, mostly concentrated within 20 km along the coast, and easily accessible in terms of transportation. Light green areas are generally favorable, but more than 20 km from the coast. Orange marks locations that would pose geological problems and silver highlights the potential existence of mineral resources.
Where are the favorable and unfavorable sites, and how many have been identified?
Close to 900 municipalities, nearly 70 percent of the country, were judged to be favorable. Much of the coastline of the four major islands was colored green, as was most of Okinawa. Areas that were flagged as unfavorable include Hokkaido’s Shiretoko region and, off Hokkaido, two disputed islands — Kunashiri and Etorofu — held by Russia.
The tip of the Noto Peninsula in Ishikawa Prefecture, much of the Japan Alps region, Tottori and northern Hyogo Prefecture, and most of southern Kyushu were seen as unfavorable.
What about Fukushima and Aomori prefecture, the site of the Rokkasho nuclear waste reprocessing plants?
Both prefectures would technically fall into the favorable category using the outlined criteria; in the case of Aomori, locations close to shore mean favorable transport conditions. But the government has already promised that the disposal site would not be located in Aomori because of the Rokkasho plant, and that Fukushima residents would not be asked to bear the burden of a final burial site, taking both prefectures out of play for political reasons.
On the other hand, much of the coastal areas of Fukui Prefecture, which has the largest concentration of nuclear power plants in the country, was deemed suitable for a disposal site. Political reaction has been cautious to skeptical. Many Fukui towns that host nuclear plants are now seeking promises from the central government that Fukui, home to 13 commercial reactors, will not also be asked to accommodate a burial site for nuclear waste.
Are authorities reviewing the use of midterm storage facilities before transferring to a final site?
In 2015, the Science Council of Japan, a national body that represents scientists and operates independently of the government, released a series of recommendations that called for storing the waste in provisional, above-ground facilities for a half century.
According to the plan, during the first 30 years of temporary storage, locations for a final disposal site would be identified and selected, and during the last 20 years, those facilities would be built.
That still requires a local government to accept a midterm facility, and none has yet. Also, such a course of action would only postpone the final site issue, putting it on the next generation to solve the predicament.
Now that the map has been published, what happens next?
The central government will begin to narrow the list of possible host sites. Much will depend on the strength of local opposition, and how much time, money and effort those who favor a particular locale becoming a final waste disposal site wish to spend on overcoming the local opposition.
Convincing local populations that the nation’s underground radioactive waste can be stored in their neighborhood for millennia without destroying the above-ground environment will be a hard sell.