January 8, 2013


Science Council of Japan Releases Policy Recommendations on High-Level Radioactive Waste Disposal

Keywords: Newsletter Nuclear Power 

JFS Newsletter No.124 (December 2012)

Regardless of what Japan decides about its future nuclear energy policy, the problem of what to do with the radioactive waste it has already generated remains unsolved. While the government has long followed a policy of reprocessing its spent nuclear fuel, the problem of nuclear waste does not disappear, because even after recovering any uranium and plutonium there still remains the high-level radioactive waste that must be "disposed of permanently."

The Japanese government has, up to now, been planning to bury its high-level radioactive waste, as stipulated in the Designated Radioactive Waste Final Disposal Act enacted in 2000; it established the Nuclear Waste Management Organization of Japan (NUMO) as the organization to implement it. In 2002, NUMO started openly soliciting municipalities nationwide for any willing to carry out feasibility studies on being the final repository for the nation's radioactive waste. In 2007, Toyo Town of Kochi Prefecture applied for an initial study about its potential to be a nuclear waste repository site, but the town withdrew its application after an election in which the town elected the mayoral candidate who had declared his opposition to having a final repository site in the town. No other municipalities have applied since then.

Under these circumstances, in September 2010 the Japan Atomic Energy Commission sent a formal request to the Science Council of Japan to examine and report on the possible approaches for the final disposal of high-level radioactive waste. The results of its two-year review, started before the Great East Japan Earthquake, were reported as a formal set of recommendations in September 2012. The report is radical by suggesting approaches never seriously considered before, including proposals for temporary (non-permanent) safe storage and for controlling the total volume of nuclear waste, and a request for the government to reconsider its policy on final disposal. I introduce below excerpts of a summary (translated by JFS) of the "Reply from the Science Council of Japan to the Japan Atomic Energy Commission."

Excerpts from "Approaches for Final Disposal of High-Level Radioactive Waste"
(Summary of Reply from Science Council of Japan to the Japan Atomic Energy Commission)

1. Background for Preparation of this Reply (omitted here)

2. Current Situation and Issues

In this reply, "high-level radioactive waste" means not only the waste generated after the spent nuclear fuel is reprocessed, but also any that is not reprocessed, if the plan to do so is aborted, which would result in at least part of it being directly disposed of.

To help frame its consideration of the issue that the Japan Atomic Energy Commission requested it to discuss, the committee adopted three perspectives: (1) analyzing why building consensus on the final disposal of high-level radioactive waste is difficult and seeking out consensus-building based on the result of the analysis; (2) securing and respecting the autonomy of scientific knowledge and realizing its limitations; and (3) looking at things from an international standpoint and at the same time considering the conditions unique to Japan.

Based on these perspectives, the committee identified three reasons why it is extremely difficult to build social consensus on deciding the final disposal of high-level radioactive waste: (1) the "cart-before-the-horse" nature of the procedure itself -- seeking consensus on the selection of the location of a final repository for high-level radioactive waste is sought before first building social consensus on general energy and nuclear power policies; (2) the need to deal with the possiblity of radioactive contamination for an extremely long time and its direct link to pursuing the benefits of nuclear power generation; and (3) a situation where the areas enjoying the benefits and those forced to bear the burdens do not overlap.

3. Content of Recommendations

Upon the request of the chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, the committee compiled the following six recommendations on how to explain and provide information to the public on the approach to disposing of high-level radioactive waste.

It should be noted again that these recommendations were given with the acknowlegement that the procedure regarding this matter is reversed and therefore inappropriate, because the public is being asked to form consensus on the individual issue of selecting a site for permanent disposal of high-level radioactive waste without spending enough time and effort on consensus-building on a comprehensive policy on what to do about nuclear power generation itself.

(1) Overhauling the Policy on High-Level Radioactive Waste Disposal

Japan's policy on high-level radioactive waste disposal to date has been based on the Designated Radioactive Waste Final Disposal Act, established in 2000, and has been pursued by NUMO, which serves as the responsible organization. Reflecting on the process to date, however, it is necessary to overhaul the fundamental concepts, policies and measures.

We should firmly understand that the reason that the policy framework up to now has encountered opposition across the nation and hit a dead-end is not because the explanation to the public was inadequate, but that the problem is rooted at a more fundamental level.

In addition, the Atomic Energy Commission itself has been conducting a comprehensive assessment of nuclear power generation and the nuclear fuel cycle since September 2011, and is in the process of overhauling the conventional policy that dictates the total reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel. It is also possible that the results of the assessment will call for drastic policy changes. In order to handle these issues appropriately, the council needs to overhaul the conventional policy framework with a commitment that maybe it even needs to start with a clean slate.

(2) Realizing the Limitations of Scientific and Technological Capability and Securing Scientific Autonomy

The first reason why Japan's policy framework, in which NUMO is commissioned to implement geological disposal of radioactive waste, is hitting a dead-end is that there is a limitation to current scientific knowledge as to how to handle the issue of nuclear safety and risk in the ultra-long-term.

To conduct a review on safety and risk from the viewpoints of natural science and engineering, it is necessary to secure a technical and independent platform for discussion that is organized and managed by an autonomous group of scientists (epistemic community) that is open to receive any questions and criticism.

(3) Rebuilding a Policy Framework Centered on Temporary Safe Storage and Total Volume Control

The second reason why Japan's policy framework to date has hit a dead-end is that the individual issue of selecting a permanent disposal site has been discussed ahead of building national consensus on a comprehensive nuclear power policy.

It is essential to present a comprehensive nuclear power policy which satisfies a wide range of people. In order to achieve this, it is necessary to rebuild a policy framework centering on two main pillars: temporary safe storage and the total volume control of high-level radioactive waste. These two would be prerequisites before the various stakeholders can sit down at the table for discussion and negotiation.

(4) Need for Acceptable Procedures to Formulate Policies on Fair Burden-Sharing

The third reason why the conventional policy framework has run into an impasse is that the waste disposal system envisioned by this framework may bring about an unfair situation where the areas that benefit from it are not the ones shouldering the burden.

In order to deal with criticism and discontent springing from this unfairness, it is not appropriate to adopt the provision of financial benefits, such as subsidies based on the Three Laws on Power-Source Siting, as a core policy means. It is necessary to improve the procedures for selecting sites without using a financial incentive as a core means. It is also necessary to establish procedures of policymaking that enable both persuasive handling of the issues of impartial and unfair burdens, along with a review to prioritize the reflection of scientific findings.

(5) Need for Multi-Step Procedures to Build Consensus by Establishing Venues for Discussion

To improve policymaking procedures, it is necessary to share awareness of the problems among a wide variety of nationals and devise a multi-step consensus-developing process. To achieve national consensus on temporary safe storage and controls on the total volume [of nuclear waste], it is necessary to establish venues for discussion at multiple stages in which various stakeholders can participate, to ensure that unbiased third parties coordinate the process of discussions, to devise the process of discussions so that the latest scientific findings will be used as the basis for realizing shared recognition, and to steadily enhance the level of consensus-building.

(6) Recognition of the Need for Long-Term, Tenacious Efforts to Solve the Problems

High-level radioactive waste disposal issues need to be considered in a timeline of thousands or tens of thousands of years. The basis of democratic procedures aims for building consensus through thorough discussions. Given the nature of the highly radioactive waste disposal issue, a firm commitment is needed to dedicate time and persistent efforts required to solve the problem.

It is also necessary to reaffirm that using methods to advance consensus-building on the basis of consensus among limited stakeholders, and combining this with financial assistance for the regions concerned, will complicate problem-solving processes and eventually run into an impasse.

Furthermore, as many Japanese people as possible should recognize the importance and urgency of the issue of high-level radioactive waste disposal. Also, as a long-term initiative, school education should make efforts to educate the next generation to gain such recognition.

(End of excerpt)

The Japan Atomic Energy Commission is drawing up responses to these recommendations. As the Chief Executive of Japan for Sustainability, I was invited to offer my views as an opinion leader and have delivered my remarks to the Commission. I believe that the issues involved here affect not only the disposal of highly radioactive waste in Japan, but also go to core issues like the very role and future of nuclear power. This knowledge motivates me to continue paying careful attention to the issues and taking action to engage others in the dialogue.

Written by Junko Edahiro