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Looking to Germany for help on nuke waste disposal

March 9, 2015

Japan Political Pulse: Looking to Germany for hints on nuclear waste disposal



It's been four years since the triple-meltdown at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant, and Japan's nuclear power industry is still an apartment without a toilet. An off-color image to be sure, but apt for an industry that continuously churns out waste -- spent nuclear fuel -- with no permanent place to put it.

The administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will soon rejig its basic plan for deciding final disposal sites for spent fuel. The government will do away with waiting for local governments to apply to host a site in favor of releasing a list of "the most scientifically appropriate areas" for final disposal. A Cabinet decision on the list is expected in mid-April.

If only it was as easy as writing a list. Germany is phasing out nuclear power, so the authorities know the grand total of spent fuel they will have to dispose of. However, they are still having a terrible time finding a place to put even this finite amount. Japan, meanwhile, still has a nuclear power industry, and the volume of spent fuel that needs to be dealt with will continue to grow. It's high time Japan snapped out of its nuclear stupor and tacked this problem.

Last month, I went to Berlin with the European reporting group at the Japan National Press Club and spoke with Ursula Heinen-Esser, chair of the Bundestag's commission on the storage of high-level radioactive waste. She is also a former parliamentarian with the ruling Christian Democratic Union party.

Germany is looking to settle on criteria for selecting final disposal sites by the middle of next year. A location is set to be picked by 2031. Deliveries of nuclear waste to the site apparently won't start for 40 to 60 years.

In Japan, meanwhile, a nuclear fuel disposal program hasn't even been decided on yet. In Germany, too, it's hard to say that everything will go as smoothly as planned, though the path to the goal looks clear and level.

Germany has a bitter experience with the nuclear waste disposal issue. In 1977, the state of Lower Saxony invited the government to build a nuclear waste repository in the town of Gorleben, which became a flashpoint for intense and sometimes violent anti-nuclear protests. Gorleben is now more or less smack dab in the middle of northern Germany, but at the time it was very close to West Germany's border with the communist East.

The Gorleben repository was never completed, and in 2013 the German federal government sent the plans back to the drawing board. The Gorleben site was not, however, removed from the list of waste repository candidates. Meanwhile, there are some worries that the presence of a mid-term storage facility nearby could mean a permanent disposal site could be forced on the area. I won't get too deeply into that issue here, however.

Should the German government give up on Gorleben? The issue is still apparently a live wire in German politics. When I asked Ms. Heinen-Esser about it, she gave me a bitter smile and said she didn't want to go into detail. She went on to say more than once that transparency and broad citizen participation in the site selection process were most important, but also the most difficult, and it was her commission's job to make it all happen.

There are 32 people on the commission. Among them are eight members representing the party factions in the Bundestag, and eight Cabinet ministers from Germany's state governments. Then there are eight scientists and eight people from a variety of backgrounds, from labor unions to religious organizations. Their main job is to judge the validity of the process of selecting a disposal site, and voting power is only granted to the 18 non-politician members. The selection of a repository site will be made by an independent federal agency tasked with nuclear safety and waste disposal.

Now let's look at Japan. The nine electrical utilities that make up the Nuclear Waste Management Organization of Japan made a public appeal for disposal sites, and in 2007 the Kochi Prefecture town of Toyo raised its hand. The decision sparked serious conflict in the town, and the proposal hasn't made any further progress. There haven't been any major moves since to find a final nuclear waste repository, and "the national government will take the lead," according to the administration's basic energy policy for 2014.

When I asked the Agency for Natural Resources and Energy about nuclear waste disposal, it stated that it was waiting for the coming Cabinet decision on a new plan, and would launch information symposiums across the country.

Did the German decision to abandon nuclear power give the move to find a final nuclear waste disposal site a good push? I asked that of Ms. Heinen-Esser, and she replied with a German "Ja." She said that it likely made it a little easier to get broad agreement on the disposal site issue.

So how should public agreement be sought? Through symposia, or a parliamentary commission? I don't know if the German method to give the people their say will be successful, but I do know that the Japanese people know nothing of their government's plans for nuclear waste disposal.

Finland and Sweden have a head start in actually building final waste repositories, but the projects are being managed by electrical utilities. Also, the nuclear industries and the populations of both nations are far smaller than Japan's. As such, it's instructive to watch the weighty discussions taking place in Germany, a major world economic power of some 80 million people. And by the way, German Chancellor Angela Merkel arrived in Japan on March 9. (By Takao Yamada, Special Senior Writer)

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