Fury in Japanese city sheds light on Fukushima’s legacy


SUTTSU, Japan – It seemed like an easy payday. the Japanese the government was conducting a study of potential locations to store spent nuclear fuel – a review of old geological maps and local plate tectonics research papers. He appealed to localities to volunteer. Participating would not commit them to anything.

Haruo Kataoka, the mayor of a struggling fishing village on the northern island of Hokkaido, raised his hand. His town, Suttsu, could use that money. What could possibly go wrong?

The answer, he learned quickly, was a lot. A resident threw an incendiary bomb on his house. Others threatened to recall 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 snowy silence, has been enveloped by a media storm.

There are few places on earth willing to host a nuclear waste dump. Only Finland and Sweden have opted for permanent repositories for the dregs of their atomic energy programs. But Suttsu’s fury is a testament to the deep anxiety that remains Japan 10 years after a huge earthquake and the tsunami caused the meltdown of three nuclear reactors in Fukushima Prefecture, the world’s worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl.

The black mark left on the Japanese nuclear industry has profound implications for the country’s ability to power the world’s third-largest economy while meeting its obligations to fight climate change. Of Japan’s more than 50 nuclear reactors, all of which were shut down after the disaster of March 11, 2011, only nine have restarted and the problem continues to be politically toxic.

As Japan’s share of nuclear power has fallen by about a third of total single-digit single-digit power, the void has been partly filled by coal and natural gas, complicating a promise that the country made at the end of last year to be carbon neutral by 2050.

Even before the Fukushima calamity, which led to three explosions and one emission of radiation that forced the evacuation of 150,000 people, ambivalence towards nuclear energy was deeply rooted in Japan. The country is haunted by the hundreds of thousands of people killed by the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II.

Yet most Japanese have come to terms with nuclear power, seeing it as an inevitable part of the energy mix of a resource-poor country that must import about 90 percent materials it needs to generate electricity.

After the nuclear disaster, public opinion shifted decisively in the other direction. Added to a newly galvanized anxiety was a new distrust both in the nuclear industry, which had built reactors susceptible to being overwhelmed by natural disaster, and the government, which had allowed this to happen.

A parliamentary commission found that the collapses were the result of a lack of oversight and collusion between the government, the plant owner and regulators.

“The utilities, the government and us nuclear experts kept saying, ‘Don’t worry, there won’t be a serious accident,’ said Tatsujiro Suzuki, director of the Research Center for the abolition of nuclear weapons at Nagasaki University. Now, “people think the industry is not trustworthy and the government pushing the industry is not trustworthy.”

The Japanese government, which has tightened safety standards for nuclear power plants, has announced plans to put more reactors back into service. But Fukushima’s legacy now taints all discussions of nuclear energy, even the question of how to deal with the waste produced long before the disaster.

“Every normal person in town thinks about it,” said Toshihiko Yoshino, 61, owner of a seafood business and oyster shack in Suttsu, who has become the face of opposition to the mayor.

“It’s because this kind of tragedy has happened that we shouldn’t have nuclear waste here,” Yoshino said in an interview at his restaurant, where floor-to-ceiling windows look out to the snow-capped mountains that towering above. Suttsu Bay.

For now, the politics surrounding the waste indicate that, if he is not buried under Suttsu, he will find his way to a place that resembles him: a town worn out by the collapse of local industry and the constant attrition of its population due to migration. and old age.

The central government tried to get local governments to volunteer by offering a payment of around $ 18 million to take the first step, a literature review. Those who take the second step – a geological survey – will receive an additional $ 64.4 million.

Only one other town in the country, neighboring Kamoenai – already next to a nuclear power plant – has joined Suttsu to volunteer.

One thing Fukushima has clarified, said Hirokazu Miyazaki, a professor of anthropology at Northwestern University who has studied how communities were compensated after the disaster, is the need to find a fair way to distribute the social and economic costs of nuclear energy.

The problem is symbolized both by the partly uninhabitable towns of Fukushima and by a battle the government’s plan to release one million tonnes of treated radioactive water from the site into the ocean.

The government says it would make small releases over 30 years without impacting human health. Fishermen in Fukushima say the plan would wipe out their long journey to recovery.

“We have this potentially dangerous technology and we’re still relying on it and we need to have a long-term view of nuclear waste and decommissioning, so we better think of a much more democratic way to manage the costs associated with it.” Mr. Miyazaki said in an interview.

Critics of nuclear power in Japan frequently cite the decades-long 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 took his campaign against nuclear energy to Suttsu at the invitation of local activists. Speaking in the city gymnasium, he said that after visiting Finland’s underground waste storage site – a facility very similar to that proposed by the Japanese government – he decided that Japan’s active geology would make impossible to find a workable location.

Japanese reactors have produced more than 18,000 tonnes of spent fuel over the past half century. A small portion of it was turned into glass – through a process known as vitrification – and wrapped in giant metal cans.

Nearly 2,500 of the huge radioactive tubes are installed in temporary facilities in Aomori and Ibaraki prefectures, waiting to be lowered 1,000 feet below the earth’s surface in vast underground vaults. There they would spend millennia shedding their toxic burden.

It will be decades – if ever – before a site is selected and the project begins in earnest. The Japan Nuclear Waste Management Organization, known as NUMO and represented by a cartoon mole cautiously sticking its muzzle out of a hole, is tasked with finding a final resting place.

Long before accepting NUMO’s offer to conduct a study in his town, Mr. Kataoka, the mayor of Suttsu, took an entrepreneurial view of government grants.

Suttsu has a population of just under 2,900, spread over the rocky edge of a deep Cerulean bay, where fishing boats prowl for mackerel and squid. Beginning in 1999, with government-funded loans, Mr. Kataoka championed an initiative to set up a stand of towering wind turbines along the shore.

Many townspeople were initially opposed, he said in an interview in his office, but the project has yielded good feedback. The city spent the profits from the sale of electricity to pay off its debts. City dwellers have free access to a heated swimming pool, golf course and modest ski slope with cable. Next to a stylish community center, there is a free daycare for the few residents with children.

The facilities are not unusual for small towns in Japan. Many localities have tried to avoid the decline by spending large sums on white elephant projects. In Suttsu, the effect was limited. The city is shrinking and in early March snow piled up to the eaves of newly built but closed stores along Main Street.

Mr. Kataoka appointed Suttsu for the NUMO program, he said, out of a sense of responsibility to the nation. Subsidies, he admitted, are a big plus. But many in Suttsu doubt Mr. Kataoka and the government’s intentions. The city, they say, does not 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 process began, it would quickly gain momentum and become unstoppable.

The plan fiercely divided the city. Journalists poured in, putting discord on the national display. A sign in the hotel near the port clearly states that staff will not accept interviews.

In October, an angry resident threw a Molotov cocktail at Mr. Kataoka’s home. He broke a window, but suffocated it without further damage. The author was arrested and is now out on bail. He apologized, Kataoka said.

The mayor remains perplexed by the aggressive response. Mr. Katatoka insisted that the literature review is not a done deal and that the townspeople will have the last word.

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 bad, he said, but “the saddest thing about it has been losing the city’s confidence.”

Motoko Rich contributed reporting from Tokyo.

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