Japan’s nuclear waste problem

The government plans to step up its efforts to select the final disposal site for high-level radioactive waste from nuclear power generation, after having failed to find any willing host community for more than a decade. But the long-stalled process will have little prospect of moving forward unless doubts and questions surrounding nuclear power — including those highlighted by the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster — are answered.

In 2000, the government decided that high-level radioactive waste, produced after spent fuel from nuclear power plants is reprocessed, should be vitrified and buried deeper than 300 meters underground. Two years later, it started soliciting municipalities around the country that would volunteer to host a disposal site, offering hefty subsidies in exchange for preliminary research. One town in Kochi Prefecture came forward in 2007, only to withdraw the offer after its mayor resigned in the face of local opposition.

In December, the Abe administration decided that the government, rather than waiting for offers from municipalities, will identify scientifically suitable areas where stored high-level radioactive wastes are deemed safe from the effects of seismic and volcanic activities or underground water, and then approach municipalities in the areas for research as possible candidates for storage sites.

Japan’s nuclear power generation has often been likened to a “condominium without a toilet” due to the lack of a final disposal site for radioactive waste that piles up as more fuel is used for power generation at nuclear plants.

The issue is cited by many as one reason for opposing nuclear power. The Abe administration, in its bid to maintain nuclear energy as the nation’s key source of energy, apparently hopes to accelerate the process to choosing a disposal location.

But the government’s push for expediting the process bypasses all the concerns raised over radioactive waste disposal, including a report by the Science Council of Japan in 2012 that called for a thorough review of the disposal method itself.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has told the Diet that technology for safely burying nuclear waste deep underground has been established, but doubts have been raised as to whether the technology is viable in quake-prone Japan.

The head of the Science Council’s expert panel said it is difficult to predict what changes would occur in the structures of ground layers at a disposal site in the next 100,000 years — the estimated time needed for the radiation emitted by the high-level waste to reach safe levels. It is therefore impossible, he said, to convince people of the safety of the disposal method.

The council observed that disposal site selection was going nowhere because the government pushed ahead with the process without a public consensus on the nation’s nuclear energy policy, including the final disposal of high-level radioactive waste. It urged the government to fundamentally review the disposal method and set a direction of nuclear energy policy that can win broad public support and then specify what amount of radioactive waste needs to ultimately be disposed.

No such discussions seem to have since taken place within the government. Rather, the Abe administration appears bent on seeking a return to the pre-Fukushima disaster nuclear power policy without any public discussions, even though much of the mess from the 2011 Fukushima meltdowns remains unresolved and people continue to harbor fears over the safety of nuclear power, as indicated by media opinion polls.

Japan does need a permanent disposal site for its nuclear waste given that there already exist piles of spent fuel from past nuclear power generation, which will further increase if idled reactors are restarted. We urge the Abe administration to first consider ways to reduce the production of radioactive waste — by decreasing the nation’s reliance on nuclear power as the prime minister has repeatedly pledged — and then review the entire disposal scheme and seek to build a public consensus on the issue.