Another Step Taken for Safe Disposal of
High-Level Radioactive Waste
ON MAY 31, 2000, the Diet passed a law which enables the Geological
Disposal Program to press ahead with plans to bury deep underground
high-level radioactive waste produced as part of the spent fuel
As every country that relies to some extent on nuclear power generation
must also address the need to dispose the radioactive waste that
is created, the latest law takes Japan one step closer to that
Disposal of High-Level Radioactive Waste
NUCLEAR FUEL can be reprocessed for reuse by recovering both
the uranium 235 that has not undergone fission and plutonium created
during the fission process. Because Japan is poor in energy resources,
it must rely almost entirely upon imports to meet its energy needs.
Recycling spent fuel thus makes eminent sense for Japan as it
not only allows existing nuclear fuel to be used more efficiently
but it also secures a reliable supply of nuclear fuel that is
independent of imports.
High-level radioactive waste is essentially a liquid separated
out during the reprocessing of spent fuel. This liquid contains
a variety of substances that remain highly radioactive for a long
period of time, so it must be stored well away from human habitation
during the period radioactivity is retained. The Japanese disposal
program calls for this waste to be vitrified (mixed with melted
glass), then poured into secure stainless steel canisters and
allowed to cool and solidify. Since vitrified waste gives off
heat, the Japanese system is designed to hold it in surface cold
storage facilities for 30 to 50 years then buried 300 meters or
Mandating Final Disposal Method
NEW DISPOSAL law stipulates that an implementing entity, under
the approval and supervision of the Ministry of International
Trade and Industry (MITI), be established to handle the geological
disposal of vitrified waste. Japan's nuclear power companies are
obligated to use this corporation and contribute to the cost of
its services in proportion to the amount of vitrified waste they
seek to dispose.The monetary contributions will be managed by
a separate public corporation to be designated by MITI.
The law also mandates that a three-step selection process be
instituted to establish a final disposal site. The first stage
includes the identification of "general survey areas"
that may be capable of providing for stable, long-term geological
disposal. The second stage will narrow these sites down to "detailed
survey areas" and the third stage specifies a "final
disposal site" (see chart on the right).
Throughout the three-step process, the law requires that consultations
be held at the prefectural, municipal and local community levels
to give due weight to the views and concerns of citizens in the
survey areas. Currently, the nuclear power companies are preparing
to establish the implementing entity in October 2000. Once the
entity has been set up and the three-stage selection process is
complete, the disposal facility will be designed and then evaluated
by the government so that it adheres to stringent safety standards.
Current plans call for the facility to begin operations some time
between the 2030s and mid-2040s.