The government has changed its basic policy on the disposal of radioactive waste produced during the processing of spent nuclear fuel from nuclear power plants.

This was an invitation-based approach whereby it waited for local governments to volunteer to host a final disposal site for nuclear waste. That policy was pursued for seven years.

Now the government will switch to taking the initiative in selecting candidate sites.

A law that took effect in 2000 created the current program to build a facility to deal with high-level radioactive waste from nuclear power plants. But no local government has offered to host a disposal site except for Toyo, a town in Kochi Prefecture, which later withdrew its application due to fierce opposition from residents.

Japan’s nuclear power generation system, which lacks a plan for final disposal of its radioactive by-products, has been lampooned as a “condominium without a toilet.” Clearly, the government needs to play the leading role in determining a final disposal site.

This is especially important in light of the government’s determination to maintain a certain level of electricity production with atomic energy as well as moves to restart offline nuclear reactors.

If nuclear power generation continues, the amount of radioactive waste will keep growing.

The government’s waste disposal plan calls for finding a tract of land sufficiently large to bury more than 40,000 units of vitrified nuclear waste (liquid nuclear waste turned into glass).

The only way to prevent an increase in nuclear waste is to initiate a policy of phasing out nuclear power generation. Otherwise, the program will require an expansion of waste disposal facilities.

Another problem with the government’s plan is that it is based on the assumption that the nuclear fuel recycling program, which is effectively bankrupt, will be kept alive.

The government claims the program will help reduce the volume of nuclear waste. Even if it can reprocess spent uranium fuel, however, the program will face the formidable challenge of how to reprocess and dispose of mixed oxide fuel, or MOX fuel, made from reprocessed plutonium blended with uranium.

That’s because there is no prospect of fast-breeder reactor technology, which is crucial for the fuel recycling program, having any practical use.

The government is right in saying that a solution to the problem of nuclear waste disposal can no longer be postponed to the next generation.

If a disposal site is not determined, radioactive waste will have to be stored within the premises of the existing nuclear power plants.

As long as the government sticks to the policy of maintaining nuclear power generation, however, there will be no real solution to the problem.

Nuclear waste is buried more than 300 meters underground. But waste should be buried in a way that makes it possible to recover it in the future, given that all sorts of problems may arise or better and safer technology to dispose of waste could be developed.

Nuclear waste keeps emitting high-level radiation that is harmful for human health for tens of thousands of years.

To make matters worse, public trust in the safety of nuclear power generation has been shattered by the catastrophic accident at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.

It is vital to establish a reliable system to respond to unexpected situations concerning stored nuclear waste.

The government plans to select “scientifically promising locations” for waste disposal from the list of candidates that doesn’t include volcanic zones, areas with faults or areas of soft ground. Then, the government will make proposals to the local governments concerned.

To avoid exerting too much pressure on local governments to accept its proposals, the way the government tackles this challenge needs to be based on an unconventional approach.

It will be impossible to persuade a local community to accept a plan to build a waste disposal facility in its area by simply stressing the necessity of such a site.

It is crucial for the government to ensure solution-oriented dialogue with local communities by revealing all of the related problems.

–The Asahi Shimbun, May 26