Even as the Abe administration pushes for reactivating idled nuclear power reactors after they have cleared the Nuclear Regulation Authority’s safety screening, an open question remains: How will Japan dispose of highly radioactive waste produced by the nuclear reactors.

The trade and industry ministry has drafted a new policy on the waste scheme that paves the way for changing the disposal method in the future when policies change or new technologies become available, but it is far from clear if the move will facilitate the long-stalled process of finding a site for radioactive waste disposal.

Due to the lack of an established scheme for final disposal of the waste that would be generated after spent fuel is reprocessed, Japan’s nuclear power generation has long been likened to a condominium without a toilet. The absence of a solution was highlighted two years ago when former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi vocally expressed opposition to restarting nuclear power reactors that had been idled in the wake of the 2011 meltdowns at Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.

The government in 2000 adopted a policy of disposing of highly radioactive waste by burying it deep underground. A power industry organization has solicited municipalities across the country that would be ready to host the final disposal site. A financially strapped town in Kochi Prefecture came forward in 2007 to apply for a documentary review in the selection process. But the bid was eventually withdrawn when its mayor faced strong opposition from local residents. He was forced out of office in a subsequent election. No progress has since been made on the issue.

Meanwhile, doubts have been raised about the safety and technical viability of vitrifying and burying the radioactive waste — which would need to be managed for tens of thousands of years before its radioactivity declined to levels considered safe — in a country prone to earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. The Science Council of Japan, a representative organization of various scientists under the Cabinet Office, in 2012 called for a fundamental overhaul of the deep-underground disposal scheme, citing the lack of scientific knowledge on safety of the method.

Such questions have gone unheeded as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe reversed the previous Democratic Party of Japan-led administration’s policy of phasing out nuclear power and eventually ending it in the 2030s, and opted to push for restarting the idled reactors.

His administration now says the government will take the lead in selecting the candidate site for underground disposal. Instead of waiting for willing municipalities to come forward, the government says it will specify areas that are suitable for the disposal site on scientific grounds and request that multiple municipalities accept on-site research.

The draft recently compiled by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry to revise the policy on nuclear waste disposal is apparently aimed at making it easier for candidate municipalities to accept the waste storage. It says that even after the waste has been buried underground, the repository should be constructed so that it can be opened in the future and the waste removed if policies change or new technologies and methods for disposal emerge.

The draft, which the government hopes to finalize by the end of next month, also calls for research on “direct disposal” of spent fuel as waste without reprocessing it — which could lead to a possible review of the nation’s long-stalled policy of reprocessing all spent fuel and reusing the extracted plutonium and uranium as reactor fuel, thereby establishing a nuclear fuel cycle. It also urges operators of nuclear power plants to increase their capacity for temporary storage of spent fuel in dry casks — given that the final disposal storage site is not expected to be ready in the near future.

The government may be trying to win public support for restarting the idled reactors by demonstrating flexibility on moving the waste-disposal issue forward. But in its policy proposal now being prepared, the Science Council of Japan criticizes the government for being “irresponsible toward future generations” by seeking to restart the reactors without a decision on the waste-disposal site.

The council says it will be difficult to decide on the waste- disposal site “given that public trust in the government, power companies and scientists has been lost” because of the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster. The council proposes tentatively storing spent fuel in dry casks aboveground for 50 years — during which time efforts should be made to regain the public’s trust in nuclear power and build a national consensus on the waste-disposal policy.

With or without reactivating the idled reactors, the radioactive waste-disposal question must be dealt with — given the already mounting stockpiles of spent fuel from past nuclear power generation. While almost all of the nation’s nuclear power reactors have been shut down since the 2011 Fukushima disaster, roughly 17,000 tons of spent fuel are stored in fuel-cooling pools at power plants across the country and in a storage facility at the reprocessing plant built in Rokkasho, Aomori Prefecture.

With the start of the reprocessing plant’s operations delayed over a series of technical problems and not yet in sight, reactivating the idled reactors would one day fill the nationwide storage capacity — which is already more than 70 percent full.

The Abe administration should realize that a unilateral approach will not resolve the nuclear waste-disposal problem. It will not be resolved, as the scientists say, as long as public trust in nuclear power policy remains so low — as reflected in media opinion surveys indicating that the majority of the people polled oppose the administration’s bid to restart the idled reactors. The government should pay heed to the legitimate doubts expressed over its policy concerning this sticky problem with nuclear power generation.

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