Selection of radioactive waste disposal site creates unhappy locals

September 21, 2012


When the central government decided on a state-owned forest in Yaita, Tochigi Prefecture, as a dump site for radioactive-contaminated waste, it informed Yaita city officials only one hour before it made the announcement.

Yaita Mayor Tadashi Endo was not happy.

"It was a bolt from the blue," he said. "We should have been consulted beforehand."

Plans to create final disposal sites for incinerated ash, sewage sludge and other waste containing high concentrations of radioactive substances spewed by the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant are off to a rocky start.

Concerns and fears are spreading in prefectures that await announcements of the candidate sites, although there is little that local officials can do, except to express their opposition.

The state forest in Yaita became the first candidate site to be named by the Environment Ministry on Sept. 3.

Katsuhiko Yokomitsu, the senior vice minister of the Environment Ministry, visited the city immediately afterward for a briefing, but the mayor rejected the proposal at once and did not hide his displeasure at the abruptness of the "notice."

Heads of neighborhood communities in Yaita joined Endo and others at an emergency meeting on Sept. 13.

"Yaita needs no 'negative facility' that will have a sustained impact," one participant said. "I was taken aback and was very much infuriated," said another.

The participants confirmed their opposition to the central government's candidate site plan and decided to collect signatures in a petition drive to stop construction.

The central government is obligated to responsibly locate and secure a dumping ground for law-based "designated waste," or waste containing 8,000 becquerels or more of radioactive cesium per kilogram. That category mostly consists of ash from incinerated garbage, sludge from sewage disposal plants and rice straw, all of which tend to contain condensed cesium.

About 43,000 tons of "designated" radioactive waste had been generated in nine prefectures by early August. In eight prefectures other than Fukushima, all radioactive waste will be sent for disposal within the prefecture where it originated.

Existing disposal sites, however, fall short of the legal demand in five of those prefectures--Miyagi, Ibaraki, Tochigi, Chiba and Gunma. The Environment Ministry therefore plans to create one final disposal site on state-owned land in each of those prefectures.

The ministry plans to present candidate sites by the end of September for four of those prefectures, except for Gunma Prefecture, where the selection will be delayed slightly.

The ministry plans to start construction next summer and begin transferring waste into the sites in summer 2014.

In Tochigi Prefecture, the Environment Ministry selected the site from among state-owned forests. The candidate site in Yaita has an ample expanse of land and the groundwater levels there run deep, ministry officials said.

But an irrigation dam lies downstream of the site. Many residents also fear negative publicity for local farm products.

"We cannot trust the (government's argument for) safety," one resident said.

The amount of "designated" radioactive waste in Tochigi Prefecture has topped 4,000 tons and is expected to eventually reach 9,000 tons. Tochigi Governor Tomikazu Fukuda said there should absolutely be a disposal site in the prefecture.

Fukuda on Sept. 10 proposed to Endo, the Yaita mayor, that the prefectural and city governments jointly attend a meeting to hear details of the plan from the central government, but Endo dismissed the idea.

"Now is not the time to do so," he said. No resolution is in sight to ending the impasse.

The Environment Ministry chose not to inform the Yaita city government beforehand for fear that information leaks and advance media reports could create misinformation and opposition. But that precaution backfired.

"If prior notice ensures that our proposal is accepted, that will be fine, but nobody can tell if things will work out that way as well," said one senior ministry official of the late notice. "We are feeling the pain, too."

Legally, construction of a final disposal site does not require local approval, but the Environment Ministry plans to continue soliciting the approval of the city government.

The ministry also plans to announce candidate sites for Miyagi, Ibaraki and Chiba prefectures by the end of September, as temporary waste depots are filling up in some communities.

Local governments in the three prefectures are getting nervous.

"We haven't heard anything from the central government," said one anxious official of the Miyagi prefectural government.

"Locals will oppose hosting a (final) disposal site, wherever that may be," said one city government official in Tome, Miyagi Prefecture, which is stuck with 2,000 tons of radioactive rice straw. "But without a disposal site, our rice straw will have nowhere to go."

In the meantime, the Gunma prefectural government, which initially contemplated creating a disposal site in each of the municipalities where radioactive waste was generated, gave up on that plan and decided to follow the central government recommendation to integrate all waste in the prefecture at one disposal site. The original plan was frustrated by tough opposition from the six affected municipal governments, which said they could not win the support of their residents.

The Environment Ministry will shortly start full-scale efforts to select a candidate disposal site in Gunma Prefecture. As for the ministry's decision not to give prior notice of decisions for candidate sites, despite how unpopular the method turned out to be in Yaita, Yokomitsu said, "I wouldn't say this is the best way, but we will stick to this method in the future."

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The Environment Ministry named this state-owned forest in the Shioda district of Yaita, Tochigi Prefecture, as a disposal site for radioactive waste. (Hiroshi Kawai)

The Environment Ministry named this state-owned forest in the Shioda district of Yaita, Tochigi Prefecture, as a disposal site for radioactive waste. (Hiroshi Kawai)

  • The Environment Ministry named this state-owned forest in the Shioda district of Yaita, Tochigi Prefecture, as a disposal site for radioactive waste. (Hiroshi Kawai)

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