On a hillside in northern Japan, wind turbines slice through the cold air, mocking efforts at a nearby industrial complex to shore up the future of the demoralized nuclear power industry.
The wind-power farm at Rokkasho has sprung up close to Japan’s first nuclear reprocessing plant, a Lego-like complex of windowless buildings and steel towers, which was supposed to have started up 15 years ago, but is only now nearing completion.
Dogged by persistent technical problems, it is designed to recycle spent nuclear fuel and partly address a glaring weakness in Japan’s bid to restore confidence in the industry, shredded last year when a quake and tsunami wrecked the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power station to the south, triggering radioactive leaks and mass evacuations.
However, the Rokkasho project is too little, too late, according to critics who say Japan is running so short of nuclear-waste storage that the entire industry risks shutdown within the next two decades unless a solution is found.
“You don’t build a house without a toilet,” said Jitsuro Terashima, president of the Japan Research Institute think tank and member of an expert panel advising the national government on energy policy after the Fukushima disaster.
“If Japan seriously wants to stick to nuclear power, a second Rokkasho would be needed,” he said.
Long-term storage of highly radioactive waste is a problem common to all nuclear-powered nations, including the US, but experts say Japan’s unstable geology and densely populated terrain mean that its challenges are far bigger.
The Rokkasho plant is due to finally start up in October, barely 19 months after the radioactive clouds at Fukushima sparked the world’s worst nuclear crisis in 25 years — a crisis exacerbated by the 1,800 tonnes of spent nuclear-fuel rods being stored at the power station when the disaster struck.
As Japan approaches the anniversary of the March 11 quake, the nuclear power industry, which just over a year ago supplied a third of its power, is virtually paralyzed. All but two of the country’s 54 reactors are offline.
The reactors have steadily been shut down for maintenance, unable to restart until they meet new stress tests that aim to determine if power stations in the future can withstand the kind of terrifying natural force unleashed on Fukushima: a magnitude 9.0 quake and a wall of water more than 10m high.
Effectively, though, the utilities have to do more than pass stress tests; they have to finally convince local governments that the waste problems will be resolved, not continue to mount up inside power plants lined up along the Japanese coast like radioactive warehouses, exposed to the risk of tsunamis.
At Fukushima, where highly radioactive spent fuel rods were crammed mostly into pools of water inside the complex, the disaster knocked out the cooling system and led to a fire in one of the pools. At the time, it was a bigger concern than even the risk of a reactor meltdown.
The governor of Ehime Prefecture, Tokihiro Nakamura, who supports nuclear power provided that safety is ensured, said it is time to finally tackle the waste issue, including the option of not only reprocessing, but storing it deep underground.
He blames successive national governments for failing to take the hard decisions.
“It’s a traditional theme,” he said. “It’s a history of their fleeing from the risk of losing an election.”