History of Hiroshima : 1945-1995

History of Hiroshima: 1945-1995 (Part 27, Article 1)

Nuclear waste

by Yoshifumi Fukushima, Staff Writer

Note: This article was originally published in 1995.

Human intelligence has created a “monster”: radioactive material, though hazardous, cannot be eradicated. Moreover, some radioactive materials retain their radioactivity semi-permanently. “Nuclear waste,” which is the inevitable byproduct of operating a nuclear power plant, is also radioactive material. Currently, such radioactive waste can only be buried in the ground. While Japan has a whole fleet of nuclear power plants, the problem of nuclear waste disposal has hardly been discussed.

The accident involving the Chernobyl nuclear reactor seared the horror of radiation on human history. The city of Hiroshima, and other parts of Japan, have continued to provide medical support for the area affected by the Chernobyl catastrophe, which has slowly wrecked people’s lives. How should human beings, as well as the A-bombed city of Hiroshima, which experienced the disaster of the atomic bombing and denounced its horror, confront this “invisible” and “inerasable” monster? Amid efforts seeking ways to face this monster, the 50th anniversary of the atomic bombing now looms.

Development plan falls through: Village shoulders work
Nuclear power peninsula in Shimokita, Rokkasho

Rain was falling on April 26 at the Port of Mutsu Ogawara in the village of Rokkasho in Kamikita-gun, Aomori Prefecture at the northernmost tip of Honshu. Rikisaburo Terashita, 83, former mayor of the village, gazed at the ship as the first delivery of high-level radioactive waste being returned to Japan from France was unloaded. A wire fence prevented people from entering the port area.

“Our village has shouldered a lifelong, man-made burden,” Mr. Terashita said.

This nuclear waste is the product of spent nuclear fuel from nuclear power plants throughout Japan, which was sent overseas and reprocessed. Special containers were transferred from the ship onto a truck. The containers held 28 cylinders of vitrified waste. Clouds of white steam rose off the high-temperature containers as rain fell on them. To Mr. Terashita it seemed to be the “smoke of the devil.”

This delivery took place nine years to the day after the disaster at the Soviet nuclear power plant in Chernobyl.

Three kilometers from the port down a special road is a sprawling 750-hectare field in the village, which surrounds Lake Obuchinuma. It is the site of various nuclear fuel cycle facilities including a uranium enrichment plant, a facility for the burial of radioactive waste and a plant for the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel.

Japan began producing nuclear power 32 years ago. Today nuclear power represents more than 30 percent of Japan’s supply of electricity. The so-called “nuclear cycle” includes the burial of the final waste and the production of new fuel. At this remote site where nuclear waste is accumulated, construction work is proceeding on a reprocessing plant and other facilities that are not yet in operation.

Eleven years ago in 1984, Aomori Prefecture was asked to accept the location of nuclear fuel facilities on the Shimokita Peninsula. Masaya Kitamura, 79, was governor of the prefecture then. “It was a bolt out of the blue,” he said.

But, after careful consideration, the prefecture agreed to accept the facilities in an effort to stimulate development of the regional economy. This decision was made just one year after the request from the government was received. The decision was criticized as being too hasty, but it was made after consulting with experts about safety and visiting reprocessing plants overseas. Until then the Shimokita Peninsula had been under a cloud that resulted from the failure of the Mutsu Ogawara Development Plan more than a decade before.

The Mutsu Ogawara Development Plan was one of a number of new comprehensive national development plans approved by the Cabinet in 1969, in the midst of Japan’s high economic growth. The large-scale plan called for the creation of a petroleum industry zone in an area covering three cities and 13 towns and villages, including Rokkasho.

Violent snowstorms are common in winter on the Shimokita Peninsula, and in the summer a cold easterly wind called the “yamase” blows. Nature is harsh, and farming is difficult. These circumstances made it imperative to become an industrial site and shift to an industrial structure.

At the time, Mr. Terashita had just become mayor of the village after serving as deputy mayor. But he consistently opposed the development plan. “There was all sorts of propaganda saying how well off the people in the remote area would be, but there’s always a down side to huge development projects,” he said.

After the plan was announced, real estate agents flooded into the village, and the price of undeveloped land increased by 10 times. Those who sold their land, moved outside the area in the village covered by the plan and built big houses. But the “oil shock” and the hollowing out of domestic industry followed, and ultimately no businesses located in the area.

Aside from the construction of an oil storage station, which had not been included in the initial plan, all that was left were large expanses of land that had been bought up: the vestiges of the huge development project. It was this land that was used as the site for the nuclear fuel facilities.

“When I was mayor, we couldn’t stop the development plan, and in the end we just sowed the ground for dangerous nuclear fuel facilities,” said Mr. Terashita. He stepped down as mayor after just one term, but since then he has continued to participate in the movement against the nuclear fuel facilities while running a variety store.

In April 1986, one month after the feisty former mayor became head of a residents’ group opposing the nuclear fuel facilities, the disaster at the nuclear power plant in Chernobyl occurred. The myth of nuclear safety was destroyed as the worst-case scenario became a reality.

As a result of that disaster, the anti-nuclear movement in the village gathered steam. The women of the fishing port blocked efforts to conduct a survey of the coastal waters, and young farmers gathered signatures on petitions calling for plans for the facilities to be withdrawn.

Satoru Sasaki, 49, a dairy farmer, said as he milked a cow, “Nuclear facilities and agriculture just can’t coexist.” There was radiation from Chernobyl in rain that fell on Japan. Mr. Sasaki said he had heard that deformed calves had been born in the area around a reprocessing plant in England. “It’s hard to prove a correlation, but I wonder if our cows are all right with these nuclear facilities nearby,” he said.

Radiation is invisible. If it leaks it will enter people’s bodies when they eat beef from cows that ate contaminated grass. “And once the radiation leaks it’s too late,” Mr. Sasaki said. Will nuclear waste, which is the price of prosperity in the 20th Century, make the residents of the village proud?

Mr. Sasaki once organized an anti-nuclear fuel concert. He pitched it as part of an effort to boost the local economy, but since then he has been labeled as a member of the nuclear opposition. Recently a representative of his neighborhood asked the village authorities to put up cold-weather fencing. At the village hall the representative was asked whether Mr. Sasaki was still opposed to the nuclear facilities, a roundabout way of applying pressure. What was to be permanent cold-weather fencing became temporary fencing.

Since 1988 construction has been undertaken on nuclear facilities in the village one after another. Since 1992, when the uranium enrichment plant went into operation, the residents have stopped speaking out. The anti-nuclear movement has also died down. “So many things became a done deal that people just gave up,” said Mr. Sasaki.

The biggest company in the village is Japan Nuclear Fuel Ltd., which operates the nuclear fuel facilities. The second largest employer is the town hall. People don’t feel they can speak out against the nuclear fuel facilities if members of their family work for Japan Nuclear Fuel or one of its subcontractors. During the tenure of the previous mayor, even with the recruitment of workers for an archaeological excavation, people who opposed the nuclear facilities were frozen out. In the society of the village, its residents keep silent.

But last summer farmer Keiko Kikukawa, 46, conducted a survey asking local residents about the pros and cons of the return of the high-level nuclear waste. She distributed the survey to all 8,800 households in the village and received replies from about 600. This represents only 8 percent of the households, but the majority of those who replied expressed opposition to the nuclear waste. Ms. Kikukawa believes that although residents feign a lack of interest in the issue, “Deep down many of them haven’t accepted the location of the nuclear waste facilities here.”

Ms. Kikukawa moved to Tokyo as part of a group of local residents seeking work there. But when she became concerned that her hometown would become a “nuclear village,” she persuaded her family to move back with her. She continues to provide anti-nuclear information to village residents via a newsletter.

After conducting her survey, she launched a direct petition drive calling for a referendum on the issue of the waste. Surprisingly, she collected 530 signatures, more than three times the required number. But the village assembly rejected the referendum. There are few opportunities for residents to make their voices heard.

The village, which has a population of about 12,000, now enjoys many “benefits” of the nuclear fuel facilities. In exchange for accepting the “power facilities,” over the past eight years the village has received a total of 19.1 billion yen in subsidies. The village’s general account budget is 9.7 billion yen, equivalent to that of a small city. The construction of public facilities and the development of infrastructure for agriculture and the fishing industry are proceeding.

Recently a plan to construct a milk processing plant using some of the funds from the subsidies has been proposed. But Mr. Sasaki has doubts. There is fierce competition among producing areas in the region’s farming industry. “I wonder if people will buy milk from a village with a lot of nuclear facilities,” he said. He feels that the subsidies come with a heavy burden for the community.

The head of an agency in the central government once said to Mr. Terashita, “If Japan industrializes, it will need a toilet. But it’s no good to have it right in the middle of Tokyo. It has to be built someplace where there are few people.” This was around the time of the Mutsu Ogawara Development Plan. “Ever since then Shimokita has been regarded as a dumping ground for nuclear waste,” Mr. Terashita said, ruefully recalling the events of those days.

“Nuclear waste can’t be stored in safes at the offices of electric power companies or under the Diet Building because it creates problems for the surrounding area,” Mr. Terashita said. He summed up the situation in Rokkasho by saying that the village put aside the drawbacks of using nuclear power while latching onto its benefits.

At the village offices Mayor Hiroshi Tsuchida, 62, said, “It’s impossible to make nuclear facilities 100 percent safe. After a lot of discussion we have finally accepted them on the condition that safety can be maintained.” He is a proponent of the facilities but is also cautious. After the nuclear disaster in Chernobyl, he visited the contaminated areas in Europe.

He objects when the subsidies are referred to as payments in exchange for the lives of the villagers. “It is the local community that suffers the most by having the nuclear facilities located here,” Mr. Tsuchida said emphatically.

“Our ‘outer moat’ was filled in by the uranium enrichment plant, and our inner moat was filled in by the low-level waste disposal center. Our castle keep was surrendered for the reprocessing plant,” Mr. Tsuchida said. “At this rate we will become a ‘nuclear graveyard.’ So now we’ve launched a bid to attract an international thermonuclear reactor, which is being studied as the next-generation safe energy source.

On the Shimokita Peninsula, in addition to Rokkasho, there are plans to build a nuclear power plant in the neighboring village of Higashidori and a new type of converter reactor in the town of Oma on the tip of the peninsula. That is why it is known as the “nuclear power peninsula.”

But the Federation of Electric Power Companies has applied to the central government to change the plans for the converter reactor, and no site has been decided on for the final disposal of the high-level nuclear waste from Rokkasho. Addressing various issues has been put off. Meanwhile the number of nuclear power plants in Japan is growing. Mayor Tsuchida said, “The government should issue a clear policy on energy.” While the public remains uninterested in the debate on safety, the village cannot continue to take on more and more nuclear facilities.

Rokkasho is marshy, and the water level is low. Earthquakes also occur. Also, more than 20,000 flights by U.S. military and the Self-Defense Forces personnel are made from the Misawa Air Base every year. “This area is definitely not suited for nuclear fuel facilities,” said Mr. Terashita.

But Japan Nuclear Fuel says otherwise. Take the uranium enrichment plant. The company’s publicity for the plant says, “The foundations of the buildings have been strengthened by digging down to the bedrock, indoor air pressure is lowered to prevent the spread of radiation, and the concrete walls are 1 meter thick. The facilities have been designed to withstand earthquakes as well as a plane crash.” Even if it includes the opinions of experts, this argument for the safety of the facilities does not hold together.

Early this month, two months after the first shipment of high-level waste had arrived, Mr. Terashita stood on the dock at the Port of Mutsu Ogawara. Drums containing low-level waste produced by nuclear power plants in Japan were being unloaded from the Seiei Maru, a ship whose name incorporates Chinese characters reflecting Aomori’s desire for prosperity.

As a light drizzle fell at the port, Mr. Terashita said, “Human beings used the power of science to create materials that can’t be gotten rid of. Some things will go on emitting radiation almost indefinitely. Continuing to use nuclear power while knowing that those materials are going to accumulate is totally irresponsible.”

That is the real reason opposition to nuclear fuel facilities will not end no matter how many years pass.

[Rokkasho Nuclear Fuel Cycle Facilities (as of July 1995) ]

Facility: Uranium enrichment plant
Start of construction: October 14, 1988
Start of operations: March 27, 1992
The facility enriches 600 tons of uranium annually and is ultimately scheduled to enrich 1,500 tons a year.
Overview: Natural uranium contains only 0.7 percent uranium 235. Using the centrifuge separation method, it is enriched to 2.4 percent. This uranium is then used as fuel at nuclear power plants.

Facility: Low-level radioactive waste disposal center
Start of construction: November 30, 1990
Start of operations: December 8, 1992
So far 53,440 drums of radioactive waste have been buried. Ultimately 3 million drums are scheduled to be buried.
Overview: Waste produced by nuclear power plants throughout Japan, such as water used to clean floors, work clothes, paper and metal is buried permanently.

Facility: High-level radioactive waste storage facility
Start of construction: May 6, 1992
Start of operations: April 26, 1995
The first shipment of 28 cylinders of vitrified waste from France has been stored. The current facility can accommodate up to 1,440 cylinders.
Overview: Spent nuclear fuel is sent to France and the United Kingdom for reprocessing. The high-level radioactive waste that results is returned to Japan to be temporarily stored for 30 to 50 years. A total of 7,100 tons of spent nuclear fuel has been sent overseas for reprocessing. Ultimately about 3,500 cylinders of waste will be returned. A site for final disposal of the high-level waste has not yet been decided on.

Facility: Nuclear fuel reprocessing plant
Start of construction: April 28, 1993
Start of operations: Scheduled for 2000
Overview: Uranium and plutonium will be extracted from spent nuclear fuel from nuclear power plants throughout the country and then reused. When completed, the facility will be able to process up to 800 tons of nuclear fuel annually.

(Originally published on July 23, 1995)