• Kyodo

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A small Hokkaido town struggling with depopulation signed up Friday for preliminary research into its land to gauge its suitability for hosting a disposal site deep underground for high-level radioactive nuclear waste, the first municipality to do so in Japan since 2007.

Suttsu Mayor Haruo Kataoka submitted the documents for the survey at the quasi-governmental Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NUMO) in Tokyo.

Municipalities that undergo the preliminary research, the first of a three-stage process requiring some 20 years in total to select a permanent disposal site, can receive up to ¥2 billion in state subsidies over two years.

NUMO chief Shunsuke Kondo expressed gratitude for the town's application, saying upon receiving the documents, "I greatly respect your brave move."

Industry minister Hiroshi Kajiyama, who held a meeting with the mayor, said the government will "make the greatest efforts possible to win (the town's) understanding."

Prior to Suttsu, the only municipality to apply for a preliminary survey was Toyo in Kochi Prefecture, which submitted documents in 2007. However, the town later withdrew before the research was ever conducted following strong protests by local residents.

"I would like to expand the circle of discussions (on the hosting of disposal facilities) across the country," Kataoka said Thursday, as he expressed hope that at least 10 municipalities will proceed to preliminary research.

Meanwhile, government officials are expected later Friday to request Kamoenai village in Hokkaido, which is about 40 kilometers north of Suttsu, to accept research into its land a day after its assembly adopted a petition to host the survey.

Suttsu and Kamoenai, with populations of about 2,900 and 820, respectively, have been struggling financially due to a decline in the fishing industry and the aging of their residents.

It remains uncertain whether the process of becoming a final disposal site will go smoothly, as Hokkaido Gov. Naomichi Suzuki and members of the fishing industry in the area are opposed to the idea of hosting such a facility.

Kataoka told reporters that the town will explain its decision to neighboring municipalities by the end of this year.

During explanatory meetings for local residents joined by officials of the Natural Resources and Energy Agency and NUMO, many residents of Suttsu voiced their opposition.

In the meantime, many residents of Kamoenai, relatively closer to Hokkaido Electric Power Co.'s Tomari nuclear power plant, voiced their support for hosting the disposal facility.

During its research, NUMO will examine the area to see if it is suited to the disposal of highly radioactive waste, paying attention to volcanoes and fault lines.

High-level radioactive waste, produced as a result of extracting uranium and plutonium from spent fuel, must be stored in concrete structures at least 300 meters underground so as not to impact human lives or the environment.

Locations near volcanoes and active faults are deemed unfavorable.

According to a map the central government released in 2017 that indicates the suitability of potential disposal sites across the country, a wide area of Suttsu and a small portion in Kamoenai are seen to be favorable.

Finland and Sweden are currently the only countries to have decided on final disposal sites.

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