By Taizan Emura and Hiroyuki Tanaka / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff WritersThe government on July 28 released a “scientific features map” of areas that could host a final disposal facility for high-level radioactive waste from spent nuclear fuel. The map displays areas’ suitability for a construction site using a four-grade scale, and was published with the aim of encouraging municipalities to host the facility. However, it remains unclear if any local governments will take on the project.
Economy, Trade and Industry Minister Hiroshige Seko said on July 28 at a press conference after a Cabinet meeting: “This is just the first step. [The map publication] doesn’t mean we’re asking local governments to judge whether they can accept [such a facility].”
Japan currently lacks a final disposal site for high-level radioactive waste, leading nuclear power plants to be disparaged as “apartments without toilets.”
Finland and Sweden have already decided on sites for facilities for the burial of radioactive waste deep underground. France has likewise undertaken a detailed survey ahead of a potential project. The United States, Britain and Germany — like Japan — have yet to begin detailed surveying.
In 2000, the Japanese government established the Nuclear Waste Management Organization of Japan (NUMO) to oversee final waste disposal. The government has been soliciting hosts for a disposal facility since 2002.
In 2007, the town of Toyo, Kochi Prefecture, applied to host a facility but withdrew its candidacy after residents opposed the move and the mayor was not reelected.
There have been no applications since. To encourage progress, the central government endeavored to chart scientifically appropriate sites for construction of a disposal facility, leading to the release of the map last month.
The government plans on holding explanatory meetings, starting this autumn, mainly in areas deemed suitable for construction. However, few anticipate municipalities to respond positively to government solicitations.
If a municipality accepts a central government survey in preparation for construction, it will receive a regional subsidy generally allocated for the hosting of power stations. Municipalities can receive up to ¥2 billion for document-based theoretical surveys to ascertain underground stability. They can receive up to ¥7 billion if the survey proceeds to the boring stage where soil is physically examined.
The central government is legally obligated to give great consideration to the opinions of the governor of the relevant prefecture to proceed to the boring survey and to the following step, where a detailed survey for the actual construction of an underground facility is carried out. This system enables the governor to block the process even if a municipality decides to accept surveying.
“If society as a whole doesn’t come to accept that these facilities must be built somewhere, no municipality will host them,” said Kota Juraku, an associate professor at the Tokyo Denki University and an expert on the sociology of science and technology.
The nuclear fuel cycle — in which spent nuclear fuel at nuclear power plants is reprocessed to extract uranium and plutonium for reuse — is a pillar of Japan’s atomic energy policy. Disposal of high-level radioactive waste, which is produced during reprocessing, is an unavoidable issue for the energy resource-poor country.
The amount of accumulated spent nuclear fuel has reached about 18,000 tons. If nuclear power plants continue to resume operations, the amount of spent fuel will increase further.
The government’s Strategic Energy Plan, adopted in 2014, states that future generations should not bear the burdens of nuclear waste disposal, but the generation responsible for creating it should.