EDITORIAL: Pressing need to secure permanent sites for contaminated waste

October 22, 2012

Mountains of waste contaminated by radioactive fallout from the stricken Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant are piling up because efforts to find permanent disposal sites in eastern Japan have bogged down.

The polluted waste includes ash from the incineration of household garbage, sewage sludge and rice straw. Plans to bury the polluted waste have triggered fierce opposition from local residents who fear the contamination of underground water. There is also concern that unfounded speculation over the safety of local agricultural products could affect sales. In many communities across eastern Japan, the waste is in temporary storage at local incineration and sewage treatment plants.

The presence of hazardous refuse is disrupting conventional operations at some of those facilities. More to the point, it is raising serious safety concerns. There is an urgent need to bury the waste and encase it in concrete at secure isolated sites.

A special measures law enacted in the aftermath of last year’s Fukushima nuclear disaster put the onus on the government to dispose of all waste with more than 8,000 becquerels of radioactive cesium per kilogram. This is categorized as designated waste.

Nine prefectures are stuck with this problem. The Environment Ministry has selected candidate disposal sites for contaminated waste in two of the nine prefectures--state-owned forests in the city of Yaita, Tochigi Prefecture, and in the city of Takahagi in Ibaraki Prefecture. But the proposals to use these areas for burying the waste have met with strong opposition.

While the state is legally responsible for dealing with polluted waste, the possible final disposal sites are located in areas under the jurisdiction of local governments. The current system, in which the central government first selects candidate sites and then the local governments concerned decide whether to accept the selections, is not working out. This touchy problem requires the central, prefectural and municipal governments to work as one and, together with local residents, look for possible options and evaluate them carefully on a case-by-case basis.

The basic principle in tackling this problem is that designated waste should be disposed of in the prefecture where it has been produced. The policy also calls for using existing disposal sites where possible. If necessary, there is a provision that allows for the construction of one new final disposal site in each of the prefectures. With regard to Fukushima Prefecture, where the crippled nuclear power plant is located, it has been proposed that existing private-sector disposal sites should be used in coordination with a temporary storage facility the government is planning to build.

As for the other eight prefectures, there are plans to build a new permanent disposal site in five of them. In choosing candidate sites, the Environment Ministry first excludes natural parks and areas where the risk of landslides is high, and then evaluates remaining options by using a comprehensive set of criteria, including geographical and geological features and possible effects on water sources and surrounding communities.

The ministry had earlier explained this policy to the local governments concerned, but then it secretly narrowed down the list of candidates to one site in each prefecture. As a result, the ministry's choices of sites in Yaita and Takahagi sparked angry protests among the local governments and citizens.

Clearly, there is no easy way to bring this policy forward. One thing that is clear, however, is the vital importance of disclosing all related information, which is one key lesson from the government's handling of the Fukushima nuclear crisis. A full disclosure policy would make it easier to win local support for the selections of disposal sites over the long term.

Gunma Prefecture explored the possibility of building a disposal site in each of the six municipalities which have designated waste, although the prefectural government later dropped the idea. In Miyagi Prefecture, the governments of the prefecture and all the municipalities will soon get together and start discussing the issue.

The local governments concerned should make their own efforts to find a solution to the problem instead of leaving the task to the central government to tackle. The Environment Ministry should respond effectively to such local initiatives through joint efforts to deal with the legacy of the nuclear disaster.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Oct. 21

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