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Disposing of nuclear waste, but where?

November 27, 2017






EDITORIAL: Public hearings on nuclear waste need rethink to dispel distrust




Selecting the site and method for the final disposal of high-level radioactive waste, which is derived from spent fuel from nuclear power reactors, represents a major conundrum.


The government’s public hearings on the issue should be fundamentally revamped to enable substantial discussions on a national level.


The Agency for Natural Resources and Energy and the Nuclear Waste Management Organization of Japan (NUMO) have been holding explanatory meetings on the matter, prefecture by prefecture, since October.


It was learned recently that students who attended those meetings had been offered remuneration in cash and other items for their attendance.


The finding concerns a total of 39 participants at five venues, including in Tokyo and Saitama Prefecture.


Officials said a contractor commissioned with public relations for young audiences made the offer at its own discretion, which had no impact on the course of discussions at the meetings. But such a practice could hurt the fairness and trustworthiness of those public hearings.


NUMO has rightly opened investigations into the past practices and begun weighing measures to prevent a recurrence.


At the same time, the organizers should also face up squarely to other problems that have emerged during the meetings that have been held to date.


Each explanatory meeting is made up of two sessions.


The first session is centered, among other things, on a presentation of the government’s Nationwide Map of Scientific Features for Geological Disposal, which shows which parts of Japan are eligible for being candidate final disposal sites.


The participants split into smaller groups to exchange views during the second session.


At most of the venues, the meeting turnout has failed to reach the maximum capacity of 100 participants. The turnout has been particularly poor during the second sessions, with only about 20 to 30 people attending.


The public hearings are being held on weekday afternoons for reasons of availability for the organizers. That is apparently making it difficult for working citizens to attend.


The organizers say they plan to cover all prefectures of Japan, except Fukushima Prefecture, during a six-month period. Holding the meetings in line with that predetermined timetable may have become an end in itself.


The contractor, on its part, mobilized the students perhaps because in surmising the organizers’ intent, it believed that small audiences, particularly with youths underrepresented, did not make for a good image.


Needless to say, the public hearings are not being held just to denote that they have been held. They are being organized to help the issues of spent nuclear fuel shared on a national level and enable substantial discussions on them.


One participant at the Tokyo venue said that a video screened at the opening of the meeting was “inappropriate” because it presented the nuclear fuel recycling program, which is about extracting and reusing plutonium and uranium from reprocessed spent fuel, in a way that could be taken to imply as if the procedure had been established.


The nuclear fuel recycling program has evidently failed, as symbolized by the recent decision to decommission the Monju fast-breeder reactor. Direct disposal of nuclear waste, in which spent fuel is buried without being reprocessed, has become the mainstream method in countries other than Japan, not the least in Finland, where a final disposal site has been selected.


The government and NUMO should convey information that may be inconvenient to them in lending their ears to a broad spectrum of opinions.


As long as they stick to a stance of only allowing discussions premised on the continuation of the current nuclear power policy, that would only intensify distrust among the public and would do little in the way of gaining broader understanding toward the selection of a final disposal site.


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