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Japan's nuclear dilemma: What to do with all that nuclear waste?

Japanese citizens are balking at the lack of information and supervision of waste stored in public places, such as playgrounds.

By , Correspondent

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    Hundreds of plastic bags packed with radioactive dirt and other contaminated debris have been buried in parks throughout Koriyama, Japan.
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The small sandy square in front of Yasushi Takemoto's apartment in Koriyama, a city of 328,000 about 150 miles north of Tokyo, looks like a normal public park. On a recent weekday morning, a group of children played on the swings while the retired dentistry professor strolled under the trees.

Beneath the soil in one unmarked, unfenced corner, however, lie hundreds of bags packed with radioactive dirt, sludge from drainage ditches, and other contaminated debris.

The waste was collected from around the neighborhood last November by citizens trying to reduce radiation from the meltdowns earlier that year at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, about 37 miles to the east.

Recommended: Think you know Japan? Take our quiz to find out.

They packed the debris into bags, buried them about six feet deep between layers of plastic sheets, and covered them with soil – all with the approval of city officials.

Radiation levels aren't especially high here because the waste is covered with a thick layer of clean dirt. And because radioactive cesium (one of the main contaminants in Fukushima) binds strongly to clay particles in the soil, the risk of it seeping quickly into ground water is low, say soil scientists at Japan's Forestry and Forest Products Research Institute.

Mr. Takemoto says children have a right to know what's in their environment all the same.

"We'll be able to say these storage sites are safe only after we've collected a certain amount of monitoring data," he says.

Oregon State University radioecologist Kathryn Higley says soil type, chemistry, and geology all come into play when it comes to water contamination. "The key feature is to keep water, critters, and plants out. Water will leach it; critters will spread it around," she says.

Are nuclear waste sites properly monitored?

Takemoto learned about the plan to bury the waste from a neighbor. When he called city hall to request a public meeting explaining the plans, he was turned down. But by filing freedom-of-information requests, he learned that at least 20 similar pits exist at parks and other public spaces in the city. He believes local officials are breaking the law by failing to inform residents and ensure the sites are properly monitored.

Last year's meltdowns exposed a culture of government secrecy surrounding the nuclear industry that allowed lax safety rules and poor oversight. Yet while the government has taken some steps toward transparency, it faces significant pressure to meet the country's energy needs. Koriyama's case illustrates that much related to nuclear power – and its very powerful business interests – remains hidden from an increasingly distrustful public.

(Read this related Monitor piece on what the future of Japan's nuclear industry looks like)

"A lot more people are suspicious of government PR [public relations] now and want to see original documents," says Yukiko Miki, director of Tokyo-based Information Clearinghouse Japan. Her organization is using Japan's information disclosure law, which went into effect in 2001, to request and archive documents related to the Fukushima disaster. Media organizations have done the same to uncover a string of recent disaster-related scandals.

Japan's most passionate protest movement

The meltdowns have also sparked Japan's most passionate protest movement in several years. Weekly anti-nuclear demonstrations outside the prime minister's residence have gone from a few hundred activists to tens of thousands, and petition campaigns have garnered millions of signatures.

Still, few ordinary Fukushima residents have the know-how to get the information they want from the government, Ms. Miki says. Takemoto is a rare exception. An avid requester of government documents before the meltdowns, he's now turned his attention to disaster-related problems such as the decontamination work that's just starting to pick up speed.

The Japanese government has pinned its recovery plan on a massive cleanup that, in theory, will allow residents to live safely in contaminated areas, rendering unnecessary a large, long-term exclusion zone like the one surrounding the ruined Chernobyl reactor. The Environment Ministry estimates that the cleanup, which extends far beyond the exclusion zone, will generate between 15 million and 31 million cubic meters of waste in Fukushima Prefecture. Eventually, the waste will end up in large, centralized storage facilities managed by the national government.

Until those are built, it's supposed to stay in strictly regulated, demarcated, and monitored "temporary storage sites" in each town to ensure it is not contaminating ground water.

What to do with nuclear waste?

Some towns, however, still haven't found places to build their temporary storage sites. With no other choice, residents, school administrators, and local park departments are burying bags of debris on their property or piling them outside under plastic sheets.

In official lingo, this is called "on-site storage." Laws don't require signs to be posted at these sites or ground water nearby to be monitored because, since the waste is stored on the same property where it was collected, it's thought to be less likely to cause new health risks than if it were moved.

Waste was being stored on-site at 1,027 schools and 788 parks prefecture-wide as of late August, according to Fukushima's local government. Including private residences and shops, Koriyama had 597 such sites as of September.

But another freedom-of-information request by Takemoto revealed that sometimes "on-site" doesn't really mean on-site. Documents show that the Fukushima branch of the Ministry of Environment, as well as the prefectural and Koriyama city governments, have broadly interpreted "on-site" to include locations within a several-minute car ride from where waste is collected. As a result, Koriyama's public parks have ended up as scantily regulated repositories for radioactive waste, marked only by a few traffic cones or nothing at all.

"Without an organized and comprehensive system for safely collecting, accounting for, labeling, and storing all of this waste, it may well become a major environmental hazard," said Edwin Lyman, a nuclear power safety expert at the Union of Concerned Scientists, in an e-mail. "It is hard to say how great the hazard will be overall, because the composition of the waste will vary greatly. But it seems inevitable that without a good records system, some of this waste will go unaccounted for, and there will be a risk."

'The city isn't protecting us'

In December, Tokiko Noguchi went to city hall with five other mothers from Koriyama to ask officials why signs were not posted at storage sites in parks. Ms. Noguchi, who runs a parents' group dedicated to protecting children from radiation, was concerned about children playing above buried waste. She says officials told her signs might lead to discrimination against nearby residents, or might cause people to throw more garbage in the park. "I'm very angry," she says. "The city isn't protecting us."

City officials turned down requests for an interview, but said in an e-mail that while laws do not require signs or ground-water testing for on-site storage, the city is keeping appropriate records of the locations. Official documents, extensive photographs, and recordings of phone conversations made by Takemoto and his assistant, Michiyo Furuse, back up what he and Noguchi report. An Environment Ministry official confirmed that the term "on-site" can refer to more than a single property.

Peter Bradford, who was on the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission during the 1979 Three Mile Island disaster in Dauphin County, Pa., believes Takemoto's type of activism is key to making the industry safer. "[Government] transparency isn't only about building public confidence," he said recently.

"It's fundamental to actually improving levels of safety. We have many examples of situations in which NGOs raised issues that caused regulators to stop overlooking issues that needed more attention."

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