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Gov't responsible for disposal of nuclear waste

Editorial: Gov't responsible for progress on decommissioning of nuclear reactors



The national government has come under mounting pressure to launch a full-scale project to decommission, dismantle and decontaminate nuclear reactors amid national debate on decreasing Japan's reliance on nuclear power.

Even if Japan maintains the current ratio of atomic power to its total power generation, the number of nuclear reactors that must be decommissioned will steadily increase as those currently in operation are aging. It is necessary for the central government to proactively improve and accumulate technologies and know-how to safely and efficiently decommission nuclear reactors.

The government has decided to decommission nuclear reactors after 40 years have passed since the beginning of their operations in principle. Throughout the world, more than 400 nuclear reactors are in operation, and aging reactors, mainly those in developed countries, will need to be decommissioned one after another in the near future. One cannot help but wonder whether Japan is prepared to do this.

The reactors at the Japan Atomic Power Co.'s Tokai plant are the only commercial reactors in Japan that are in the process of being decommissioned. The reactors are Japan's first commercial reactors that began operations in 1966. The plant was shut down in 1998 and work to decommission the reactors got under way in 2001. According to the plan, the decommissioning process will be completed in 2020.

However, there are serious challenges to the work. The burial site for radioactive waste generated as a result of the dismantling of the reactors has not been determined yet.

Since radiation levels are high in the reactor core and the equipment around it, the operator of the plant will wait about 10 years for the radiation levels to decline sufficiently before dismantling the reactor core. Until then, the plant operator will remove equipment situated away from the reactor core. However, full-scale work to remove the reactor core and equipment near it, which is scheduled to begin in 2014, cannot be launched until a disposal site for radioactive waste stored in these areas is secured.

This is reportedly due to Japan Atomic Power's internal regulations. However, unless the radioactive waste disposal site is secured, the work to decommission the reactor could stop.

In accordance with the government's policy, in principle electric power companies must take responsibility for decommissioning their own nuclear reactors. However, the government should be responsible for selecting radioactive waste disposal sites and their management, considering the safety of such sites and the need to gain consent from local residents.

In particular, if the burial of radioactive waste from nuclear reactor cores, which is supposed to be stored and properly managed 50 to 100 meters below ground for 300 to 400 years, is left to the discretion of private companies, local residents will feel uneasy and never accept it.

Decommissioning nuclear reactors requires special know-how such as radiation management. The government should consider ways to strategically accumulate technologies, such as fully using the experiences gained from decommissioning the Tokai power plant for other nuclear plants. Once Japan establishes a competitive edge in this field, Japanese firms will benefit from demand for such technologies that is expected to grow overseas.

However, Japan cannot accumulate such necessary experiences unless it solves problems involving the disposal of radioactive waste domestically. If the government evades its responsibility for disposing radioactive waste by postponing the decision or leaving the matter entirely to the private sector, other developed countries will overtake Japan in the nuclear reactor decommissioning business.


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