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Resumption of discussions by government working group on nuclear wastes

  The working group on nuclear wastes, organized under the nuclear energy subcommittee of the electric power industry committee of the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry’s Advisory Committee on Natural Resources and Energy, restarted its discussions on May 28, 2013, after a reshuffle of committee members. I was chosen as a member of the working group. The main purpose of the discussion was to review the government’s efforts concerning the final disposal of nuclear wastes. The group held its second meeting on June 20, but its review policy still remains unclear. This article will take up the development of the situation pertaining to the final disposal of nuclear wastes and the government’s efforts on this issue, which are to be reviewed by this group.

    In 1999, a law concerning the processing and disposal of high-level nuclear wastes in Japan, the Designated Radioactive Waste Final Disposal Act, was enacted. This was primarily based on the geological disposal of high-level vitrified wastes. The law provides that vitrified nuclear wastes are buried deep underground, deeper than 300 meters from the surface, and calls for the establishment of an organization in charge of procuring the necessary funds and carrying out this disposal project. The law proposes that the disposal site should be selected through an open application system.

    This law was put into effect in 2000, the Nuclear Waste Management Organization of Japan (NUMO) being established on the basis of the law. NUMO is charged with selection of potential disposal sites and the final disposal of nuclear wastes. In 2002, in accordance with the law, NUMO called on 3,000 local governments across the nation to apply for selection as host to a disposal site.

    The selection of the disposal site will be conducted in three stages. In the first stage, the districts for brief investigation are chosen through bibliographic surveys. In the second stage, sites for in-depth probing are selected and the overall investigation of each site and its environment is conducted by using exploratory boring and other methods. In the third stage, possible construction locations for disposal sites are selected and detailed investigations carried out by building the necessary underground facilities.

    NUMO presumed that the number of local governments applying for selection to host a disposal site would total around ten, of which two would be selected as the sites for detailed probes in the third stage. In the final stage, one of the two sites would be chosen as the final disposal site.

    However, it would become necessary to use both sites in the future if the use of nuclear power continues, although no one talks about this possibility openly. The reason for this is that the capacity of the disposal site is estimated at about 40,000 blocks of vitrified nuclear waste, which is equivalent to the total number of spent nuclear fuel rods that would be produced by the year 2020. This means that two or more disposal sites would become necessary if the use of nuclear power continues beyond 2020.

    Nevertheless, no local governments applied even for selection to host a site for brief investigation in the first stage. In March 2007, it was revealed that the mayor of Toyo Town in Kochi Prefecture secretly applied without obtaining consent from the town assembly. The town residents stood up, called for a recall election, and demanded enactment of an ordinance that would ban the entry of nuclear wastes into the town. As a result, the mayor resigned, and the recall election was held in April. The newly elected mayor withdrew his town’s application. In the wake of this scandal, the then Governor of Kochi Prefecture criticized the government’s nuclear energy policy. He said the government cannot obtain local residents’ consent by distributing money like water. The government promised to pay two billion yen to each local government if it applied for selection to host the disposal site. Originally, the central government set the amount at 200 million yen, but increased the amount ten-fold to two billion yen after it became clear that no local governments were going to apply.

    Following the scandal in Toyo Town, the central government revised a relevant law to obtain the right to directly ask local governments to apply for selection. The government was set to implement the revised law and ask local governments to apply in 2011 when the nuclear disaster occurred at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station. The government was thus forced to suspend this move.

    Meanwhile, the Japan Atmic Energy Council (JAEC) asked the Science Council of Japan (SCJ) in September 2010 to deliberate on the government’s efforts concerning the disposal of high-level radioactive wastes. The main points of the deliberation were 1) how the government should explain to the public, local governments that applied or to which a direct request was made to apply for disposal site selection, and how it should provide them with related information, and 2) to assign NUMO the task of presenting technical reports on this project.

    In response, SCJ set up a panel in September 2010 and commenced discussions on these issues. About six months later, the nuclear accident occurred at Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station and the circumstances surrounding nuclear energy changed dramatically. Reflecting this, the contents of the SCJ report on its discussions also changed drastically.

    SCJ has pointed out that there are three problems involving the selection of the nuclear waste disposal site. 1) To try to create a local community consensus for selection to host a high-level radioactive waste disposal site without first creating a national consensus on the nation’s nuclear power policy was going about the matter in the reverse order. 2) Measures against possible, extremely long-term radioactive contamination around the disposal site should be devised. 3) Ways should be developed to narrow the wide gap between the advantages to be enjoyed by the consumers in urban areas and the disadvantages to be suffered by the residents in the sparsely-populated district that ends up hosting the nuclear waste disposal site.
   Considering that the nuclear disaster in Fukushima was caused by a massive earthquake, SCJ has come to the conclusion that the basic assumption on which the traditional nuclear waste disposal technology was developed has substantially collapsed. Thus it has raised fundamental questions on the open application system for selection of the nuclear waste disposal site and the disposal technology itself. Based on these perceptions, SCJ has presented the following six recommendations.

1. The conventional high-level radioactive waste disposal system should undergo a drastic review (A national consensus on future energy policy should be created first).

2. There is a limit to the government’s ability to predict major earthquakes, the movement of geological strata, such as active faults, and other types of disasters, and it is necessary to establish a professional and independent panel capable of discussing such issues openly.

3. A policy framework mainly concerning the “interim storage” of nuclear wastes for periods from several tens of years to several hundreds of years should be created, and “total-volume management” of nuclear wastes (with two different meanings; one is determination of the volume to be created, the other is reduction of the volume created per unit of power generated) be carried out

4. Fairness should be secured in shouldering burdens involving nuclear waste disposal,

5. Discussion meetings should be organized to create a popular consensus on the multistage selection system, and

6. It is necessary to establish the awareness that this project requires tenacious long-term efforts. 

    JAEC received this report but refused to comply with the recommendation that the total volume of nuclear waste to be stored at the disposal site be set at a fixed amount. However, the government took SCJ’s recommendations seriously. The result of this was the establishment of the working group on nuclear wastes.

    Although the government is taking the recommendation seriously, it is shelving the procedure to create a national consensus on energy policy (this is not part of the remit of the working group), and is concentrating its efforts solely on devising new ways of tackling high-level radioactive wastes. Under the current circumstances, no matter how many times the government asks local governments to apply for selection as a disposal site, its efforts collapse due to strong opposition from local residents. Confronted with this situation, the government seems to have gained the perception that the first thing it has to do is to forge an environment where local governments can apply more easily. This means that the government is not moving to comply with recommendation 1 to review the reversed procedure of the open application system. I will do my best to help solve this problem. As things stand now, the working group has no choice but to hold small-scale, insignificant discussions.

(Hideyuki Ban, Co-director of CNIC)

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