JAPAN | Disposal of nuclear waste should be made a top priority

Posted on June 13, 2011

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JAPAN | MAINICHI | June 13, 2011

In the June issue of the monthly journal Sekai (The World), life scientist Keiko Yanagisawa argues that nuclear power plants must not be operated as long as we do not know how to dispose of highly radioactive nuclear waste — which can wreak havoc on human DNA .

Tetsuzo Fuwa, chairman of the Japanese Communist Party (JCP), is of the same view. Reading over the column he wrote in the party’s daily paper Akahata (Red Flag), his position is presented in clear, unambiguous language.

Both Fuwa and Yanagisawa are alarmed that as a result of having continued the operation of nuclear power plants without any waste disposal measures in place, highly radioactive spent fuel has accumulated to breaking point.

Spent fuel is much more dangerous than nuclear fuel that has not yet been used, and has the potential of reaching recriticality unless its temperatures are continually kept cool. Because spent fuel continues to emit radiation even after the rate at which it releases heat diminishes, it must be isolated from human life for hundreds of thousands of years.

Since such waste currently has no place to go, however, there is nowhere to keep it except in spent fuel pools at nuclear power plants. It was just recently that the revelation that the pool water vaporized at the stricken Fukushima No. 1 Power Plant, thereby possibly melting the spent fuel, made our blood freeze.

Last month, NHK rebroadcast the striking documentary “Into Eternity,” about a spent fuel disposal facility currently being built in Finland. The first of its kind, the plan for the facility is to bury nuclear waste 500 meters underground, and isolate it from human life for the 100,000 years stipulated by EU safety rules.

We don’t know what sort of civilization will exist in Finland or the rest of the world tens of thousands of years from now. Advanced civilizations may have fallen by then. At any event, how can we help our descendants understand that they must not dig into the ground? There’s no really good way to go about it.

It goes without saying that the issue of nuclear waste should have been resolved before we began using nuclear energy to generate power. The building of nuclear waste disposal facilities had heretofore not been carried out in Finland or anywhere else.

Initially, Japan had planned to dispose of spent fuel in the depths of the sea, but after attracting much international criticism, decided instead to bury it underground. But no concrete decisions have been made, including what kind of facility it’s going to be and where it will be located. Local municipalities are reluctant even to host regular garbage treatment centers. Nuclear waste? Forget about it.

When talks between Japan and the U.S to establish a waste disposal facility in Mongolia came to light, some people said that it was acceptable as long as Mongolia was all right with it. That misses the point, though, doesn’t it?

From the shell heaps of prehistoric times to the local dumps of the Edo Period, human beings disposed of their own waste. Are we going to let go of that unbroken tradition of moderation because of our thirst for electricity?

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