SUTTSU, Japan – It seemed easy money. The Japanese government conducted a study of potential spent fuel storage locations – a review of old geological maps and research into local plate tectonics. It called on the localities to volunteer. Participation would not oblige them to anything.
Haruo Kataoka, the mayor of a troubled fishing village on the north island of Hokkaido, raised his hand. His city of Suttsu could use the money. What could go wrong?
The answer, he learned quickly, was a lot. A resident threw a fire bomb on his house. Others threatened to remember the city council. A former prime minister traveled six hours from Tokyo to denounce the plan. The city, which spends much of the year in a snow-covered silence, was surrounded by a media storm.
There are few places on earth that want to host a nuclear waste dump. Only Finland and Sweden have committed to permanent repositories for the dregs of their nuclear energy programs. However, the excitement in Suttsu speaks to the deep concern that persists 10 years after a huge earthquake and tsunami in Japan that caused the collapse of three nuclear reactors in Fukushima Prefecture, the world’s worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl.
The black mark on Japan’s nuclear industry has profound implications for the country’s ability to power the world’s third largest economy while meeting its commitments to tackle climate change. Of the more than 50 Japanese nuclear reactors, all of which were shut down following the March 11, 2011 disaster, only nine have restarted and the problem remains politically toxic.
With Japan’s share of nuclear power falling from roughly a third of total output to single-digit levels, the void has been partially filled by coal and natural gas, complicating the promise that the country was climate neutral by 2050 at the end of last year.
Even before the Fukushima disaster, which resulted in three explosions and a radiation release that forced the evacuation of 150,000 people, ambivalence about nuclear energy was deeply ingrained in Japan. The country is ravaged by hundreds of thousands who were killed by the atomic bombings on Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II.
Still, most Japanese had resigned themselves to nuclear energy and viewed it as an inevitable part of the energy mix for a resource-poor country that has to import around 90 percent of the materials used to generate electricity.
After the nuclear disaster, public opinion swung decisively in the other direction. In addition to a renewed fear, there was a new distrust of both the nuclear industry, which had built reactors that could be overwhelmed by a natural disaster, and the government, which had allowed it to do so.
A parliamentary commission found that the meltdown was due to a lack of control and collusion between the government, the plant owner and regulators.
“The utilities, the government, and we nuclear experts kept saying, ‘Don’t worry, there won’t be a major accident,” said Tatsujiro Suzuki, director of the Research Center for the Abolition of Nuclear Weapons at Nagasaki University. Now, “people think that the industry is not trustworthy and the government that is driving the industry is not trustworthy. “
The Japanese government, which has increased safety standards for nuclear power plants, plans to bring more reactors back into operation. But Fukushima’s legacy is now tainting all discussions about nuclear power, even how to deal with waste created long before the disaster.
“Every normal person in town thinks about it,” said Toshihiko Yoshino, 61, the owner of a fish shop and oyster hut in Suttsu, who has become the face of opposition to the mayor.
“Because this kind of tragedy happened, we shouldn’t have nuclear waste here,” Yoshino said in an interview in his restaurant, where large picture windows look out over the snow-capped mountains above Suttsu Bay.
Politics surrounding garbage shows for now that if it is not buried under suttsu, it will find its way to a similar place: a city worn down by the collapse of local industry and the constant wear and tear of its population through migration and Age.
The central government has tried to motivate local governments to volunteer for examination by offering a payment of around $ 18 million for the first step, a literature search. Those who enter the second phase – a geological study – will receive an additional $ 64.4 million.
Only one other city in the whole country, the neighboring Kamoenai – already next to a nuclear power plant – volunteered with Suttsu.
One thing that Fukushima made clear, said Hirokazu Miyazaki, a professor of anthropology at Northwestern University who studied how communities were compensated after the disaster, is the need to find a just way to meet the social and economic costs Distribute nuclear power.
The problem is symbolized both by the partially uninhabitable cities of Fukushima and by a fight over the government’s plan to release one million tons of treated radioactive water from the site into the ocean.
The government says it would make small publications for over 30 years without harming human health. Fukushima fishermen say the plan will ruin their long road to recovery.
“We have this potentially dangerous technology and we are still relying on it. We need to have a long-term view of nuclear waste and decommissioning so we can better think about a much more democratic way to deal with the costs involved,” Miyazaki-san said in an interview.
Critics of nuclear energy in Japan often cite decades of failure to find a solution to the waste problem as an argument against restarting the country’s existing reactors, let alone building new ones.
In November, former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi brought his anti-nuclear campaign to Suttsu at the invitation of local activists. At the city’s gym, he said that after visiting Finland’s underground landfill – a facility similar to that proposed by the Japanese government – he decided that Japan’s active geology would make it impossible to find a working site.
Japanese reactors have produced more than 18,000 tons of spent fuel in the last half century. A small portion of it was converted to glass through a process known as vitrification and encased in huge metal canisters.
Nearly 2,500 of the giant radioactive tubes are in temporary facilities in Aomori and Ibaraki Prefectures, waiting to be lowered 1,000 feet below the surface into vast underground vaults. There they would spend thousands of years reducing their toxic burden.
It will take decades, if at all, to select a location and get the project started in earnest. The Japanese organization for the disposal of nuclear waste, known as NUMO and represented by a cartoon mole carefully sticking its snout out of a hole, is responsible for finding a final resting place.
Long before he accepted NUMO’s offer to conduct a study in his city, Mr. Kataoka, the mayor of Suttsu, had taken an entrepreneurial stance on government subsidies.
Suttsu has a population of just under 2,900, spread thinly along the rocky edge of a deep Cerulean Bay, where fishing boats forage for mackerel and octopus. Starting in 1999, Mr. Kataoka supported an initiative to install a stand for towering wind turbines along the coast with government-supported loans.
Many in town initially opposed it, he said during an interview in his office, but the project has delivered nice returns. The city used the profits from the sale of electricity to pay off debts. City residents have free access to a heated pool, golf course, and modest ski slope with a tow. In addition to an elegant community center, there is a free day-care center for the few residents with children.
The facilities are not uncommon for the small town of Japan. Many places have tried to prevent its decline by spending large sums on white elephant projects. In Suttsu the effect was limited. The city is shrinking, and in early March snow lay on the eaves of newly built but closed shops along the main street.
Mr. Kataoka nominated Suttsu out of a sense of responsibility to the nation for the NUMO program. The subsidies, he admitted, are a nice bonus. But many in Suttsu question the intentions of Mr. Kataoka and the government. The city, they argue, doesn’t need the money. And they wonder why he made the decision without public consultation.
At a city council meeting on Monday, residents expressed concern that once the trial began, it would quickly pick up and become unstoppable.
The plan has severely divided the city. Reporters have come and flaunted the discord at the national level. A sign in the hotel at the port makes it clear that the staff does not accept interviews.
In October, an angry resident threw a Molotov cocktail at Mr. Kataoka’s house. It broke a window, but he smothered it with no further damage. The perpetrator was arrested and is now out on bail. He apologized, said Mr. Kataoka.
The mayor remains confused by the aggressive response. Mr. Katatoka insists that the literature research is not an fait accompli and that citizens will have the final say.
In October he will run for a sixth term. He wants voters to support his proposal, but whatever the outcome, he hopes the city can move forward together.
Losing the election would be a bad one, he said, but “the saddest part of it all was losing the city’s trust.”
Motoko Rich contributed to coverage from Tokyo.