Photo/Illutration Vitrified radioactive waste in the storage facility at Rokkasho, Aomori Prefecture (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

The Kishida administration has unveiled a policy initiative to deal with high-level radioactive waste from nuclear power plants through “united government-wide” efforts.

The government plans to step up its efforts to find a local government willing to host a final disposal site for nuclear waste. The government should naturally assume the responsibility of dealing with this problem, but it should not pressure local governments to host a disposal facility.

According to the draft revision to the basic policy for tackling the problem, which was announced earlier in February, the government will set up a “council for discussions” with interested local governments to discuss the challenges  and possible policy responses.

Based on these talks, the national government will propose in stages to local administrations to accept a survey for a disposal site.

Under the current basic policy, the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry published in 2017 a map of the nation showing potential areas for locating a deep geological disposal site. At this site, spent fuel would be buried in engineered facilities 300 or more meters below ground level.

The initial phase of assessing two municipalities in Hokkaido for their suitability to host such a disposal facility began three years ago. The first stage of the process, called “bunken chosa” (literature survey), involves reviews of geological maps and research papers concerning local volcanic and seismic hazards and other related factors.

No other municipalities have yet to volunteer for undertaking this process.

High-level radioactive waste from spent nuclear fuel, however, is not the only kind of nuclear waste that must be disposed of. Other types of nuclear waste include materials from decommissioned reactors and melted “fuel debris” from the stricken Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, which has been left untreated.

One inconvenient fact for supporters of nuclear power generation is that no solution has been found as to where all these kinds of nuclear waste should be disposed of.

At nuclear power plants across the nation, growing amounts of spent nuclear fuel are fast filling up the spent fuel pools within the premises, with not much room left. Operating nuclear plants will eventually start generating spent fuel that cannot be stored anywhere.

The government’s move to accelerate its program to build a final disposal site is aimed at defusing criticism about its policy shift toward expanding nuclear power generation by signaling a willingness to tackle these policy challenges.

Since there is already a large amount of spent nuclear fuel, a disposal site is clearly necessary. A broad consensus on the issue should be built through debate involving the entire nation, including citizens of major cities who consume huge amounts of electricity.

It would be better for such a debate to be held at an independent organization that is separated from the industry ministry, which promotes the use of atomic energy. The law for regulating measures related to the final disposal of radioactive waste should be reviewed for necessary revisions.

Since Article 1 of the law refers to the “proper use of nuclear power,” the construction of a final disposal facility could justify the long-term use of nuclear power.

That would mean nuclear plants will keep producing spent fuel for decades to come. This prospect will make local communities that may host the disposal facility concerned about the possibility that radioactive waste may be brought to the site without end.

The law is based on the assumption that a nuclear fuel reprocessing system to recover plutonium and uranium from spent nuclear fuel to be reused in reactors will be established.

Northern Europe and many other countries with an advanced program to deal with radioactive waste have adopted the approach known as direct disposal, a management strategy where used nuclear fuel is disposed of in a deep underground repository, without any recycling.

Instead of adhering to the now unworkable program to establish a fuel recycling system, the government should designate direct disposal as a realistic option.

This is the time to fundamentally rethink the law, which was enacted more than two decades ago without much serious debate, taking into consideration the experiences of the Fukushima nuclear disaster.

The Asahi Shimbun, Feb. 19