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.
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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.Skip to next paragraph
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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."