Little progress has been made in deciding the locations of the final disposal facilities that will handle radioactive waste resulting from the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant crisis in March 2011, leaving concerned municipalities in an increasingly vexed state.
The government has been considering locations in Miyagi, Tochigi, Ibaraki, Gunma and Chiba prefectures because these candidate sites already house large amounts of materials defined by the government as "designated waste," which contain radioactive substances measuring more than 8,000 becquerels per kilogram.
However, local residents are strongly opposed to the construction of such facilities due to fears about radiation.
According to the Environment Ministry, there are a total of 143,689 tons of designated waste in Tokyo and 11 other prefectures as of the end of March. Designated waste includes incinerated ash, mud from sewage and straw.
The Yomiuri Shimbun Under the law on special measures concerning the handling of pollution from radioactive materials, designated waste should be handled in the prefecture where it originated under the responsibility of the central government.
Contamination levels of designated waste are much lower than those of radioactive waste that is to be stored in a planned interim storage facility, where levels exceed 100,000 becquerels per kilogram.
The central government is considering the construction of the interim storage facility in Fukushima Prefecture's Okuma or Futaba towns.
Regarding the final disposal facilities for designated waste, the central government plans to construct a concrete double-walled structure underground to contain buried waste. However, the government has failed to dispel concerns among residents near candidate sites for such a facility.
On June 30, Environment Ministry officials held a meeting with officials from Miyagi Prefecture as well as three facility candidate municipalities in the prefecture-Kurihara, Taiwa and Kami-at a hotel in Sendai.
The central government aims to construct the facility in one of the three municipalities, but Kami Town Mayor Hirobumi Inomata said at the meeting: "There are defects in the central government's selection of candidate sites. With the townspeople, I ask the central government to call off the selection results."
The two other municipalities also opposed the construction of the final disposal facilities.
"We've finally been recovering from damage that resulted from harmful rumours over the nuclear crisis. If our agricultural products become unsellable, we will not be able to live in the town," said a 64 year-old farmer in Kami.
There are nine temporary storage facilities for designated waste on the premises of the Teganuma sewage treatment facility, straddling Inzai and Abiko in Chiba Prefecture.
Each of these facilities-7 meters high, 15 meters wide and 50 meters long-store a total of 526 tons of designated waste generated in Matsudo, Kashiwa and Nagareyama in the northwestern part of the prefecture.
Since the municipalities do not have adequate storage facilities of their own, the prefecture accepted their waste at the sewage facility on a temporary basis, with a time limit set for the end of March next year.
However, residents near the sewage facility voiced concerns and filed a lawsuit demanding the elimination of the storage facilities.
The deadline is looming with candidate sites for final disposal facilities yet to be decided. Since the five prefectures where the central government plans to construct the final disposal facilities excel in agriculture, they are sensitive to radioactive materials and the fears that often swirl around them.
Meanwhile, municipalities that were forced to temporarily store designated waste are hoping to have the issue resolved at an early date. In Tome, Miyagi Prefecture, which stores the prefecture's largest amount of designated waste such as straw, the difficulty of securing storage sites has led to some waste being stored by individuals.
"If the situation is prolonged for a long period of time, we are concerned about the deterioration of waterproof sheets used to store designated waste," said a city government official.
Much of the radioactive waste in Nasu-Shiobara, Tochigi Prefecture, is also temporarily stored on private property.
"We hope the central government will construct the final disposal facilities as early as possible," remarked a city government official.
In May, five Chiba Prefecture municipalities including Kashiwa made an urgent request to the Environment Ministry to secure sites for the disposal of radioactive waste.
"We've been calling for residents to cooperate on the condition that the central government is responsible for the construction of disposal facilities. Unless the current situation is addressed, the trust of the residents will be undermined," said Kashiwa Mayor Hiroyasu Akiyama.
Residents' views key to nuclear waste disposal
Senior Vice Environment Minister Shinji Inoue stressed in January the difference in approach in selecting final nuclear waste disposal sites between the current Liberal Democratic Party-led administration and the previous government led by the Democratic Party of Japan.
"After the administration changed [from a DPJ-led administration], the process of selecting [candidate sites] was reexamined from scratch," Inoue said.
"We wanted to reflect the will of the local people as much as possible."
Inoue made the remarks during a press conference two days after the government suggested three municipalities in Miyagi Prefecture as candidate sites for final disposal of nuclear waste.
His remarks followed the furor the ministry experienced over selection process of candidate sites under the previous administration.
Under the DPJ-led government, the ministry chose state-owned forests in Yaita, Tochigi Prefecture, and Takahagi, Ibaraki Prefecture, in September 2012 as candidates for final disposal sites.
One of the reasons the ministry selected them was that they were not close to residential areas.
However, the ministry announced its plans with little advance consultation with local residents because it feared strong opposition from them.
This was to no avail as the local residents were so angry they marched in front of the Prime Minister's Office to protest the plans. In the end, the ministry was forced to withdraw the plans.
In response to this experience, the current government fundamentally revised the process to select candidate sites.