By Erica Yokoyama
Two fishing villages in Hokkaido are vying to host the final storage facility for half a century of Japanese nuclear waste, splitting communities between those seeking investment to stop the towns from dying, and those haunted by the 2011 Fukushima disaster, who are determined to stop the project.
In the middle is a government that bet heavily on nuclear energy to power its industrial ascent and now faces a massive and growing pile of radioactive waste with nowhere to dispose of it. Since it first began generating atomic energy in 1966, Japan has produced more than 19,000 tons of high-level nuclear waste that is sitting in temporary storage around the country. After searching fruitlessly for two decades for a permanent site, the approaches from Suttsu, population 2,885, and Kamoenai, population 810, may be signs of progress.
The towns have focused a debate that has bedeviled an industry some regard as a vital emissions-free energy source and others revile as a dangerous liability. The accidents at Chernobyl in 1986 and Fukushima in 2011 reinforced public skepticism about both the safety of reactors and our ability to safely store their residue for centuries. While new generations of fail-safe reactor designs may eventually help assuage the first concern, the problem of the waste remains.
That’s where the two fishing villages come in.
Japan’s nuclear energy strategy is to reprocess spent fuel to reuse extracted uranium and plutonium, and to seal the remainder in glass, enclose it in steel containers and bury it in bedrock in a “deep geological repository” at least 300 meters underground. There the radioactivity would slowly decay, losing 99.9% of its potency in 1,000 years.
Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has said Japan should be carbon neutral by 2050, but it’s difficult to see how that goal will be met without getting some electricity from nuclear.
So the radioactive waste continues to pile up, stored temporarily above ground at the giant Rokkasho nuclear power complex in Aomori Prefecture, the far north of Japan’s main island of Honshu, and other plants and research stations around the country. The nuclear facilities in Rokkasho and Tokai, Ibaraki Prefecture, already have about 2,500 blocks of vitrified waste, while another 19,000 tons of spent fuel is scattered around other sites, waiting to be processed.
To find a site that would permanently hold at least 40,000 vitrified blocks, the government in 2017 produced a color-coded map showing suitable locations in green in terms of geology, seismic activity and ease of transportation from power plants.
As the pandemic gutted their economies last year, Suttsu and Kamoenai put up their hands. While authorities in both villages say the decision to apply was not taken because of the recent slump, both have suffered from economic decline and the aging trend that has affected much of rural Japan as young workers migrate to cities.
The potential prize is a share in ¥3.9 trillion of investment over three stages. In the first, NUMO would spend two years evaluating the risk using geological maps and scientific papers, which could be worth a subsidy of as much as ¥2 billion. A four-year field survey and drilling would follow, worth up to ¥7 billion. Finally, a test bench would evaluate extracted strata for about 14 years before the final decision.
Both communities have struggled with decline. Japan’s non-farmed seafood production has fallen by more than two-thirds since 1985. The Kamoenai government has tried to boost its traditional industry with a project to restore catches. But warming waters, exacerbated by climate change, have taken their toll.
But since Fukushima, many Japanese citizens don’t want a nuclear future, especially in their backyard. Hokkaido Gov. Naomichi Suzuki objected in October when Suttsu and Kamoenai applied for the stage 1 survey, citing the prefecture’s 2000 ordinance to refuse any high-level nuclear waste. He wrote to METI in November, requesting assurances that no waste would be sent to Hokkaido as part of the surveys.
A group of Suttsu citizens called for a referendum on the issue on Oct. 23, which the municipal assembly voted down. Kataoka said an improvised firebomb had earlier been hurled at a window of his home.
Residents say the issue has fractured the town.
“Suttsu is a warm local community where children can grow up surrounded by nature,” said Nobuka Miki, co-leader of a group fighting the disposal site. “The mayor isn’t listening to citizens who will live in Suttsu for generations to come.”
Miki moved to Suttsu eight years ago from Sapporo when her husband inherited his family’s seafood business. She said they have received anonymous threats and letters from customers saying they will boycott the town’s produce if the nuclear site goes ahead. Nor is she impressed by the idea of a new wind farm. “An offshore wind plant will surely destroy the ocean and our fishing industry,” she said.