Science panel recommends delaying burying radioactive waste

September 12, 2012


Citing the country's geologically unstable archipelago as a threat, the Science Council of Japan is recommending that the government build temporary storage facilities to hold more than 27,000 cylinders of high-level radioactive waste.

The council on Sept. 11 completed a report that calls for regulating the total amount of radioactive waste from nuclear power plants and storing it temporarily.

The report pointed out the high seismic and volcanic activity beneath the Japanese archipelago threatens a burial site for the waste.

"There is a limit to what we can do with currently available scientific knowledge and technological capacities" to search out geological formations that will remain stable over tens of milleniums, the council said.

The report recommended building facilities for the temporary storage of nuclear waste, from which it can be removed anytime, although it could be stored there for anywhere from decades to centuries.

Scientists should use that time to study the stability of geological formations and develop techniques to more quickly reduce radioactivity in nuclear waste, the recommendation said.

The SCJ is a government-affiliated body of academics that makes policy recommendations. It submitted its report, which calls for a fundamental review of the current final disposal policy based on eventual burial in the ground, to the government's Japan Atomic Energy Commission.

The government's current policy specifies that all spent fuel from nuclear plants should be reprocessed. It says the high-level radioactive waste, generated during the reprocessing, should eventually be buried at depths of 300 meters or more below ground in Japan. This reprocessing policy is currently under government review, which started after the accident at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant in March last year.

The Nuclear Waste Management Organization of Japan in 2002 started accepting candidacies by local governments willing to host a final disposal site. Only one municipality came forward in 2007, and it later retracted its offer.

To break the impasse, the AEC in September 2010 asked the SCJ to draw up a recommendation on the matter. The SCJ has since held deliberations in a study committee.

The SCJ's report also pointed out a lack of urgency at controlling the total amount of nuclear waste. It said the fear of an increase without limits lies at the bottom of public distrust of the government's nuclear power policy.

The recommendation said it is essential to set an upper limit on the total amount of radioactive waste and to implement controls to prevent it from increasing without limits. It said the current effort to decide on the ratio of electricity to be generated by nuclear energy in the future without discussing a cap on the total waste generated was tantamount to simply postponing the issue and called on the government to seek public input.

The government's current nuclear waste disposal policy assumes that the waste can be disposed of safely using established techniques. The latest SCJ recommendation, which said currently available technologies involve uncertainty and risks, is a fundamental challenge to that assumption and is a call for policy change.

The SCJ recommendation will be discussed by an AEC panel to revise the government's Framework for Nuclear Energy Policy by year's end. If any part of the SCJ recommendation ends up in the revised framework, it will be reflected in the government's policy.

In the past, the AEC was responsible for determining the policy. Following the crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant, however, it was decided that the government's Energy and Environment Council will first draw up the proposal, and that the framework will be drafted only on that basis.

The council will decide whether to incorporate the SCJ proposal in the Framework for Nuclear Energy Policy.

The SCJ recommendation pointed out that expert opinion remains divided over the assumption that it is possible to isolate radioactive-contaminated waste with certainty even in the event of an unimagined contingency or disaster. It will be difficult to select a final disposal site without forming a consensus during careful discussions by experts and sharing it through a broad public discussion.

Some countries overseas have decided on putting nuclear waste in temporary storage facilities instead of burying it immediately in a final disposal site. Canada, for example, in 2007 decided to store radioactive waste temporarily for about 60 years prior to its final disposal.

France plans to design a nuclear waste disposal facility so that waste remains recoverable for at least 100 years.

Japan possesses more than 2,650 cylinders containing vitrified high-level radioactive materials. It also has the equivalent of 24,700 cylinders of spent fuel at nuclear power plants. The amount of waste is expected to grow if the government decides to move toward zero nuclear power generation and to bury spent fuel directly in the ground without reprocessing it.

Temporary storage means passing the resolution of nuclear waste disposal to future generations. Even discussions on a storage site have yet to start. It is vital for policymakers on nuclear issues to offer solutions to the waste disposal problem.

(Jin Nishikawa contributed to this article.)

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