Underground Lab Tackles Japan Nuclear Waste Issue

Reindeer farms and grazing Holstein cows dot a vast stretch of rolling green pasture here on Japan's northern tip. Underground it's a different story.

Workers and scientists have carved a sprawling laboratory deep below this sleep dairy town that, despite government reassurances, some of Horonobe's 2,500 residents fear could turn their neighborhood into a nuclear waste storage site.

"I'm worried," said 54-year-old reindeer handler Atsushi Arase. "If the government already has its eye on us as a potential site, it may eventually come here even if we refuse."

Japanese utilities have more than 17,000 tons of "spent" fuel rods that have finished their useful life but will remain dangerously radioactive for thousands of years. What to do with them is a vexing problem that nuclear-powered nations around the world face, and that has come to the fore as Japan debates whether to keep using nuclear energy after the 2011 disaster at Tokyo Electric Power Co.'s Fukushima plant.

The answer to that problem may lie in the Horonobe Underground Research Center, which has been collecting geological data to determine if and how radioactive waste can be stored safely for as long as 100,000 years in a country that is susceptible to volcanic activity, earthquakes and shifting underground water flows.

Several journalists donned hard hats recently and crammed in small groups into a cage-like mesh elevator for a 350-meter (1,150-foot) descent to reach the laboratory.

They emerged in a 760-meter-long (2,500-feet-long) tunnel cut in the shape of a figure 8, its bare wall showing 3 million-year-old sedimentary layers. Dripping water formed puddles on the ground. Dozens of cables and gauges connected to biscuit-size holes in the wall were analyzing the composition and movement of groundwater and other data around the clock.

In return for hosting the research, which under an agreement with the Japan Atomic Energy Agency doesn't involve any radioactivity, Horonobe has received about 1 billion yen ($10 million) in government subsidies and tunnel-related public works projects since 2000, according to town statistics.

Officially, this is only a test.

But as with America's doomed Yucca Mountain project, finding a community willing to host a radioactive dump site is proving difficult, even with a raft of financial enticements. One mayor expressed interest in 2007, and was booted from office in the next election.

Kazuhiko Shimizu, the underground lab's director general, noted that Horonobe is distant from potential risks, and data samples have so far indicated it might work as a storage site. Exploring an alternative location would take another 20 years, he added.

"It's a project that takes a lot of time and effort just to get started," he said. "It's not easy."

That kind of thinking makes locals fear they have made a deal with the devil.

"There is no guarantee this test site won't turn into a final repository," said 60-year-old dairy farmer Satoshi Sumi. A move by France to convert its test site into a final depository makes him nervous. "I've been skeptical about the agreement and I still am."

The issue is political, not scientific, said Osamu Tochiyama, director of the government-funded Radioactive Waste Disposal Safety Research Center in Tokyo.

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