Japan’s 17,000 Tons of Nuclear Waste in Search of a Home

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Spent fuel rods
Spent nuclear fuel rods. Photographer: Tomohiro Ohsumi/Bloomberg

Welcome to Japan, land of cherry blossoms, sushi and sake, and 17,000 metric tons of highly radioactive waste.

That’s what the country has in temporary storage from its nuclear plants. Supporters of atomic power say it’s cleaner than fossil fuels for generating electricity. Detractors say there’s nothing clean about what’s left behind, some of which remains a deadly environmental toxin for thousands of years.

Since atomic power was first harnessed more than 70 years ago, the industry has been trying to solve the problem of safe disposal of the waste. Japan has been thrown into the center of the conundrum by its decision in recent months to retire five reactors after the Fukushima disaster in 2011. It also decided this week to begin the restart process of one reactor despite public opposition.

“It’s part of the price of nuclear energy,” Allison Macfarlane, a former chief of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, said in an interview in Tokyo on atomic waste. “Now, especially with the decommissioning of sites, there will be more pressure to do something with this material. Because you have to.”

For more than half a century, nuclear plants in more than 30 countries have been humming away -- lighting up Tokyo’s Ginza, putting the twinkle into New York’s Broadway and keeping the elevators running up the Eiffel Tower. Plus powering appliances in countless households, factories and offices around the world.

In the process, the world’s 437 operating reactors now produce about 12,000 tons of high-level waste a year, or the equivalent of 100 double-decker buses, according to the World Nuclear Association.

Fukushima Disaster

Most countries now agree burying atomic waste deep underground is the best option. Other ideas like firing it into space or tossing it inside a volcano came and went.

The U.S., with the most reactors, spent an estimated $15 billion on a site for nuclear refuse in Yucca Mountain, Nevada. Local opposition derailed the plan, meaning about 49,000 tons of spent fuel sits in cooling pools at nuclear plants around the country.

Japan faces another challenge. Four years ago, the country had a nuclear accident unlike anything seen before. An earthquake and tsunami ripped through the engineering defenses at the Fukushima plant north of Tokyo and caused the meltdown of three reactors.

It will need billions of dollars and technology not yet invented to clean up Fukushima. How long that will take is disputed. The operator, Tokyo Electric Power Co., estimates 40 years. Greenpeace says it could take twice that time.

‘Ethical Responsibility’

All Japan’s 43 operational reactors have been offline since September 2013 for safety checks after the disaster. The government has said atomic power is essential to energy supply and reactors that meet safety standards will be allowed to restart.

The first in line belongs to Kyushu Electric Power Co., which today said it has finished refueling one of its units in southern Japan. It plans to restart the plant in August, which means generation of more nuclear waste.

It will be a “failure in our ethical responsibility to future generations,” to restart reactors without a clear plan for waste storage, the Science Council of Japan said in April.

No Thanks

Japan’s Nuclear Waste Management Organization, known as NUMO, has been searching for a permanent storage site for years, initially inviting districts to apply as a host.

In 2007, it got one when the mayor of a town called Toyo submitted interest. Like the residents near Yucca Mountain in the U.S., Toyo’s citizens didn’t like the idea and voted him out of office. His successor canceled the plan.

Now facing the accelerated shutdown of some reactors post-Fukushima, NUMO in May ditched the idea of waiting for a volunteer. Instead, scientists will nominate suitable regions.

“We’d like all citizens to be aware and feel ownership of this situation,” said Takao Kinoshita, a NUMO official. “We should feel grateful for the community that’s doing something for the benefit of the whole country and respect their bravery.”

Deep Underground

NUMO’s plan for a final underground repository was drawn up in 2007 and would cost 3.5 trillion yen ($29 billion).

It would contain about 40,000 canisters, each weighing half a ton and holding waste at temperatures above 200 degrees Celsius (392 Fahrenheit). The contents would give off 1,500 sieverts of radiation an hour, a level that would instantly kill a human being.

The canisters need to cool in interim storage for as long as 50 years before heading 300 meters below ground. Their stainless steel inner layer is wrapped in bentonite clay to make sure water can’t leak inside.

“That’s the biggest risk we see, water leaking through,” said Kinoshita.

Finland and Sweden are the only two countries so far to have selected and reached a public agreement on a final site and storage technology for high-level nuclear waste. Finland’s is expected to open in 2020.

Taking apart a reactor, known as decommissioning, produces a few tons of highly radioactive material, usually the used fuel and coolant. The buildings and equipment account for thousands of tons of so-called low-level waste.

Disposal Confusion

Japan’s government is responsible for dealing with the most radioactive waste. The plant operator handles the rest.

“Even in the low-level category there is the relatively higher-level waste and the nation’s technical solutions are not ready,” Makoto Yagi, the president of Kansai Electric Power Co., said at a June briefing in Tokyo.

Shaun Bernie, senior nuclear specialist with Greenpeace Germany, said this shows Japan’s reactor program and high-level nuclear waste policy is “in a state of crisis.”

Without a clear disposal strategy, costs to take apart the reactors can end up being double original estimate, said Colin Austin, senior vice president at Energy Solutions, which has worked on every decommissioning project in the U.S.

Another wrinkle in Japan for finding a final disposal site is that the country sits on a mesh of colliding tectonic plates that make it one of the most earthquake-prone countries in the world.

Former NRC chief Macfarlane, who is also a seismologist, said that doesn’t make it impossible to bury the waste. A repository hundreds of meters underground is partly protected against quakes in the same way submarines are during high storms, she said.

Leaving nuclear waste on the surface indefinitely means it will get into the environment so Japan has to solve this, she said.

“An adequate place underground is better than waiting for the best possible place.”

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