No matter how you feel about nuclear energy, nuclear waste is generally something you want to stay as far away from as possible—unless you’re two villages on the Hokkaido, Japan’s second-largest island. The two small fishing towns, Suttsu and Kamoenai, are competing to become the site for a high-level radioactive waste storage site as a means to stay afloat economically. But not everyone is so thrilled about the prospect.
According to national data, Japan has generated more than 19,000 tons of highly toxic atomic waste since it began using nuclear power in 1966. To keep it away from people, back in 2000, the country passed the Designated Radioactive Waste Final Disposal Act to open a call for an underground waste repository for some of it.
At the time, unsurprisingly, no municipalities to sign up to host the toxic stuff. The trepidation only grew when in 2011, an earthquake and tsunami triggered an explosion at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, releasing an unprecedented amount of radioactive contamination into the ocean. It was the most severe nuclear accident since Chernobyl.
But now, times are desperate in Japan’s small villages. Fishing, once a booming industry, is in decline. Many young people are moving into cities where economic prospects are better. As a result, populations are shrinking. Suttsu currently has a population of 2,885, down from nearly 5,000 in 1980, and Kamoenai is home to just more than 800. As Bloomberg noted, both towns were also hit hard by the economic downturn of the covid-19 pandemic last year.
Agreeing to host the nuclear storage facility would be a major boost for either town. By agreeing to preliminary research into hosting the nuclear storage facility, municipalities can rake in up to $19 million in government subsidies over two years. If that first stage goes well, another $66 million becomes available in exchange for a four-year field survey and preliminary drilling. If that goes smoothly, the town would go through a 14-year evaluation period, unlocking even more funding. In total, the potential prize for agreeing to host the facility could be up to $37 billion in investments. So in October, both towns’ officials came forward as potential candidates.
But of course, the prospect of living near an atomic waste dump has sparked opposition from concerned residents of both towns. Nuclear waste can contain toxic elements like uranium and plutonium. Anti-nuclear advocates in Suttsu even pushed for a referendum on the village’s application, but the municipal assembly voted it down. Japanese government officials said their review process is airtight and would protect locals, but in an interview with the magazine Aera, Yugo Ono, a geology professor at Hokkaido University, said the earthquake risk is high and could lead to the stored waste leaking.
It’s sad that small Japanese towns are being forced to these lengths to protect their economic stability. But at some point, Japan will need to put its nuclear waste somewhere. Let’s just hope when it does, it does so safely.