Waste matters

by John D’Amico

Before the disaster on March 11, 2011, thirty percent of Japan’s electricity came from nuclear power.  Now, only a few plants remain operational.  The one or two still online will close sometime this September.  Oil and gas bought in bulk from abroad make up for the lost power.  Though the previous administration planned for the deactivation of nuclear power plants by the 2030s, Abe Shinzo and his political allies, the conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), might go in a different direction.  Future policy will depend on both the new rules instituted by the Nuclear Regulation Authority of Japan and the outcome of an ongoing debate in Japanese politics.

Some, like Mr. Hatakeyama, the head of nuclear policy at METI, argue that the cheap operating costs of nuclear and the risks of a volatile global oil market make the continued use of nuclear power, with the adoption of more stringent safety standards, economically rational. Yet Mr. Kono, a member of the conservative Liberal Democratic Party in the lower house, makes a surprisingly different calculation.  Unlike many others in his party, he opposes the use of nuclear power, and not for the usual reasons of safety or sensitivity to the feelings of the victims of the 2011 disaster.

According to him, the problem is none other than waste.  Within ten years the storage for spent fuel will fill up, and no feasible fast breeder reactors even exist to deal with leftover plutonium.  While Mr. Hatakeyama seemed confident that the planned Rokkasho underground storage and treatment center would take care of at least the spent fuel problems, Mr. Kono rather drily countered that finding an appropriate site for the facility—one with no risk of earthquake, no volcanos, and no groundwater—“would be impossible in Japan.”

Though nuclear plant operation costs are comparatively low, the process of finding an appropriate means of waste disposal, as well as the maintenance of that disposal system, makes nuclear power much more costly when compared to fossil fuels.  According to Mr. Kono, even on a technical level, Japan cannot in the long term continue the reprocessing and storage of spent fuel.  He sees this technical impossibility as the key limitation of any effort to restart nuclear power.

Yet the others we spoke to disagreed, considering technical problems irrelevant.  According to Mr. Hatakeyama, METI deals with policy and therefore does not need scientists directly on staff.  Mr. Kono criticized this tendency to neglect scientific knowledge in the upper echelons of the Japanese political world, laughing about how a past Minister of Science couldn’t answer a simple question about the difference between processing uranium and plutonium.  The other two members of the lower house we interviewed exemplified this tendency, choosing instead to make the case for or against nuclear power for economic or safety reasons.

Part of the problem is misinformation.  TEPCO and other power companies not only sponsor political campaigns, but also provide technical advice and analysis that often ignores unpleasant, un-business-friendly truths.  Before 3/11, it was in no one’s interest to challenge the status quo mentality:  that nuclear power was absolutely safe and  economically sustainable.  After the disaster, everyone knew the former was false.  The latter is still up for debate.