By Carmen Grau
One morning in September, 87-year-old retiree Masao Takimoto was reading the newspaper in his house in Kamoenai when a news story captured his attention, ruined his day and changed the course of this quiet fishing village on the island of Hokkaido, in northern Japan: the mayor of the village of 822 had agreed to a preliminary study to host a disposal site for highly radioactive nuclear waste, for which the Japanese government would award 2 billion yen (€16 million, US$19 million) in subsidies.
Mr Takimoto didn’t waste a single minute. He wrote a letter of protest and delivered it by hand to the mayor’s house. Over the following days, he produced and distributed leaflets alerting others to the dangers of the nuclear disposal site and tried to gain access to the meetings that were being hastily held. His journey to activism resulted in tensions and anonymous threats. Ultimately he was unable to stop the mayor from signing on 9 October an application with the Nuclear Waste Management Organisation (NUMO), a quasi-governmental body charged with managing Japan’s radioactive waste.
Meanwhile, just 40 km away, another fishing village of 2,900 inhabitants quickly mobilised to prevent their mayor from volunteering for the same study. Suttsu, 40 per cent of whose inhabitants are over 65 years old, announced in August its interest in applying for the large subsidy to combat depopulation.
Someone broke the bicycle that Junko Kosaka, 71, was using to hand out leaflets against the nuclear disposal site. She has been a member of the opposition in the Suttsu council for nine years and laments the tension and discord between neighbours. “The village has no financial problems. There are fishing companies and profitable sales of fish. We receive a large budget from Japanese citizens who support rural areas through the Hometown Tax scheme.” She was surprised by the age of NUMO’s managers, all of whom are elderly, and believes that young people should decide their own future. “I would like the managers to reflect, to rethink nuclear energy. We are a country of disasters.”
Emptying villages and poor employment prospects
Japan is the world’s fourth largest producer of nuclear power after the United States, France and China. Distributed across the archipelago, 54 reactors generated 30 per cent of electricity until 2011. Despite having shut down the majority of reactors following the fatal accident of Fukushima, Japan’s commitment to nuclear energy remains firm, though not without controversy. Nine reactors are still in operation and 18 are waiting to be reactivated to generate 20 per cent of the country’s electricity in 2030.
Since 2002, the government has been looking for a location for a permanent geological repository, concrete structures at least 300 metres below ground that will store radioactive waste for millennia so as not to affect life and the environment. Desperate to solve a global and irreversible problem of the nuclear age, Japan is offering subsidies to encourage localities to host the repository. Small villages with declining populations and uncertain futures are attracted by the promise of money and jobs. The first phase will consist of two years of feasibility research. For the following phase, a four-year preliminary geological investigation, villages will receive an additional 7 billion. The final phase will consist of digging and the construction of the underground facility, a process that will last 14 years.
For decades Japan has been shipping tons of spent fuel to France and England for reprocessing, but the resulting radioactive waste must be returned to the country of origin for disposal by the IAEA. Japan only has a temporary repository (between 30 and 50 years – and half of that time is already up) in the village of Rokkasho, but 40,000 highly polluting cylinders are waiting for a permanent storage (the construction of which could take at least 20 years). The central government must also find storage for low-intensity waste occupying the equivalent of eight Olympic-size swimming pools. Every time a power plant operator uses gloves, a suit or tools, the earth fills with rubbish that contaminates for generations. France, Belgium, Sweden and Spain already have disposal sites for several centuries and Finland has just opened a permanent site in one of the oldest rock formations in Europe.
A debated that is not promoted
Nobody in Kamoenai wants to talk to the press. By mid-morning, the boats have returned and the women are cleaning the salmon for sale. There are empty houses and closed businesses which have seen better days. In the main street, an imposing building is under construction: the new town hall, just opposite the old one. “I’m an employee of the town hall and I’m not authorised to respond,” says one young woman. “I’m not an expert, I can’t give an opinion,” says a young man. “I don’t want to talk, I could lose my job,” says a worried woman. “We have the power plant nearby and nothing bad has ever happened,” says another evasively.
Some residents, like Takimoto, continue to protest: “No to nuclear waste. Life is more important than money.” On the poster, a baby dreams of a world and an ocean without pollution.
This article has been translated from Spanish.
Read more at In desperate search of disposal sites for its nuclear waste, Japan offers poisonous grants to two small villages