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ATOMS in JAPAN

1 March, 2017

Slow Progress in Selecting Candidate Sites for Geological HLW Disposal; Modification of Terms Considered for Semantic Reasons

At a meeting on February 28, the Radioactive Waste Working Group under Japan's Advisory Committee for Natural Resources and Energy heard explanations on plans for a dialogue campaign by the Nuclear Waste Management Organization of Japan (NUMO), the body responsible for the disposal business.

It also discussed identifying and presenting “scientifically promising sites,” that is, highly suitable sites for the final disposal of high-level radioactive waste (HLW).

By law, sites to be considered as possible final disposal sites will be gradually narrowed down based on literature, preliminary and detailed investigations, each carefully carried out with increasing precision and rigor. Prior to that process, however, scientifically promising sites will be identified based on a rough assessment of their suitability using data from across the country.

That so-called “mapping” is positioned as an activity with the national government at the fore, and is a pillar of the basic policy on final disposal revised in May 2015. The government had aimed at identifying and presenting such promising sites before the end of last year.

The working group had previously discussed requirements and standards for deeming a site “scientifically promising,” including the aspects of (a) the geological environment and long-term stability, (b) the safety of buildings and operating facilities below and above ground, and (c) the ability to ensure safety during the transport of waste.

That was done in order to classify the sites into three categories, as follows: (1) nominally suitable, (2) suitable and (3) highly suitable.

NUMO has conducted diverse public information and dialogue activities around the country, ranging from symposia to small-group roundtable discussions and support for debates, all aimed at improving people’s recognition of the geological disposal business and promoting their understanding on safety and necessity, particularly since the basic policy was revised.

At the working group’s meeting on February 28, NUMO said that once scientifically promising sites were presented, it would continue its efforts to improve the understanding of the general public about the safety and necessity of geological disposal.

It also said that it would conduct dialogue activities, placing priority on “highly suitable” regions, and deepen discussions through the support of local learning activities undertaken through local initiative. In such a way, NUMO said that it hoped that literature investigations could be conducted simultaneously in multiple municipalities when the time comes.

Meanwhile, Osamu Tochiyama, who chairs a working group addressing the technical aspects of geological disposal, proposed that expressions involving scientifically promising sites be modified to “presentations of regional scientific characteristics and mapping,” aiming at providing easily understood information on scientific characteristics deep underground in the form of a national map.

He said further, however, that he was worried that the term “mapping” might cause people to misunderstand that waste was to be “pushed out” or that regions were being “ranked.” Tochiyama also suggested that the word “suitable” be revised to “a relatively high probability of confirming favorable characteristics,” or the like.

Those may seem to be peculiarly Japanese semantic considerations, but such controversies can be quite real in this country.

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