Suttsu, Hokkaido/Tokyo – The mayoral election in the town of Suttsu, Hokkaido, slated for Tuesday is being closely watched for its potential to derail the central government's selection of a final disposal site for high-level radioactive waste.
In Suttsu, first-stage research to determine whether the town can host an underground storage facility for spent nuclear fuel from power plants across the country has been underway at the initiative of Mayor Haruo Kataoka.
In the one-on-one election, Kataoka, 72, running for a sixth term, is facing off against Yoshiki Echizenya, a 70-year-old former town assembly member who is opposed to the research. Voters in the town will cast their ballots for the first time in 20 years after Kataoka was re-elected uncontested in the past four elections.
Suttsu and the small village of Kamoenai, also in Hokkaido, are the only municipalities in Japan that have signed up for research to select a site for final repository.
Suttsu, a fishing town facing the Sea of Japan with a population of about 2,800, applied for the first-stage research in October 2020 as a means of economic stimulus. The research started in the town the following month for the first time in Japan.
Worried about the future of the town, which is suffering from depopulation, Kataoka hopes to use government subsidies of up to ¥2 billion it can receive for hosting the research to create jobs and put a halt to its fall in population. He also wants to make the town a model for studies on the issue of radioactive waste in order to stimulate discussions across the nation on issues concerning nuclear power generation.
By contrast, Echizenya is calling for the cancellation of the research, noting that the project has caused a division among residents. He aims for a shift to fiscal management that suits the town's stature.
Among townspeople, opinions are indeed split. "The research will be only the beginning. Nuclear waste will come (to our town)," a man in his 70s said. By contrast, a woman in her 60s believed that accepting the research was an unavoidable choice for the town, saying, "(The town) needs money to continue services for residents."
If the incumbent mayor is ousted in the election and the town government calls off the research, clouds of uncertainty will gather over central-government efforts to resolve the absence of a permanent dump site for radioactive waste from nuclear plants, a situation sometimes called "a condominium building without a toilet."
For the final disposal of such waste, the central government aims to construct a facility more than 300 meters underground to store vitrified spent nuclear fuel so that the human living environment will not be affected.
The whole research process to select a final disposal site is estimated to take about 20 years. The first stage, known as literature survey, is a project lasting about two years to review records of past earthquakes and geographical maps in order to analyze the strength of geographical layers and the bedrock.
The second step, called preliminary investigation, is a drilling survey continuing for about four years to examine the geographical layers. The host municipality will receive subsidies of up to ¥7 billion. Then in the third stage, roughly 14 years will be spent on a detailed investigation using an underground facility.
Approvals from the mayor of the host municipality as well as the prefectural governor are needed for the local government to shift from the initial survey to the second and third stages.
A senior official of the industry ministry takes a wait-and-see attitude toward the mayoral election in Suttsu, saying, "We respect the will of local residents."
The industry ministry and the Nuclear Waste Management Organization of Japan, or NUMO — which plays a primary role in the selection of a final disposal site — aim to choose an optimal storage site after surveys are conducted in many municipalities, the ministry official said. They are watching the ongoing selection processes in foreign countries such as Canada.
The ministry and NUMO hope that the research in Suttsu will encourage dialogue among townspeople and promote local revitalization projects with the subsidies, which in turn may motivate other municipalities to accept research, officials said.
In 2007, the town of Toyo, Kochi Prefecture, filed an application for a first-stage survey. But the town withdrew the application as the mayor who supported the survey was defeated in an election later that year. Since then, no municipality, other than Suttsu and Kamoenai, has accepted research.
The selection of a final disposal site is an important challenge for Japan in the conduct of its energy policy. "It's an issue that needs to be debated on a national level. It's inappropriate to think that the decision of the residents of Suttsu will affect the policy," an official from the electric power industry said.
Still, depending on the course of the election campaigns in Suttsu and the voting outcome, other local governments could become warier of accepting research for the selection.
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