The selection of a site to house an interim storage facility for spent fuel from nuclear power plants operated by Kansai Electric Power Co. (KEPCO) has run into rough waters. In January, the Aomori Prefecture city of Mutsu surfaced as a candidate, but resistance quickly emerged from locals.
With KEPCO's nuclear power plants being concentrated in Fukui Prefecture, the prefectural government has set a basic premise of storing spent nuclear fuel outside the prefecture. The utility aims to announce a candidate site this year, but there remains fierce opposition to accepting nuclear fuel from other prefectures, and because of this, its prospects of settling on a site are unclear.
After a 20-minute drive along a national route from central Mutsu during a visit by the Mainichi Shimbun in early March, an imposing fence could be seen along a snowy field. Beyond the fence was a square building -- an interim storage facility that is being built by Recyclable-Fuel Storage Co. (RFS), a company founded by Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings, Inc. and Japan Atomic Power Co. The facility's storage capacity is around 3,000 tons of spent fuel. There are plans to build a second building in the future.
In January, this facility gained nationwide attention. As the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) came to the final stage of its screening of the facility, news organizations reported that KEPCO was considering transporting spent nuclear fuel from its plants to the facility.
Mutsu Mayor Soichiro Miyashita immediately held a news conference, saying he had heard no such thing from the central government, KEPCO, or RFS. "The feelings of the region are being completely ignored," he said.
In an interview with the Mainichi Shimbun on March 6, Miyashita suggested it was unlikely KEPCO would bring its nuclear fuel into the facility as things stand. "Operations at the site haven't started yet. Without the facility having cleared the NRA's screening, it's unthinkable that they could change the status quo," he said.
The Shimokita Peninsula in northern Aomori Prefecture, where the city of Mutsu is located, not only houses the interim storage building, but has a collection of other nuclear facilities including the Higashidori Nuclear Power Plant in the Aomori Prefecture village of Higashidori, the Oma Nuclear Power Plant in the town of Oma and the reprocessing plant for spent nuclear fuel in the village of Rokkasho. But since the outbreak of the Fukushima nuclear disaster in March 2011, construction of nuclear facilities has been suspended or delayed.
"We had expected our nonresident population to increase in line with nuclear power plant construction and inspections. But taxi companies are going out of business, and the economic chill is severe," Miyashita said.
Alongside concerns about the storage of nuclear fuel, there are also deeply rooted aspirations regarding the operation of nuclear power plants in the region. Katsura Sonoda, head of the Mutsu Chamber of Commerce and Industry, commented, "In local economic circles, there is little resistance to reactivating nuclear power plants, and we want the interim storage facility to go into operation quickly. Fixed property taxes and subsidies will also increase.
A figure in the energy industry commented, "The mayor is up for election for a second term in June. It's not the case that he lacks understanding of nuclear power-related projects; I guess it's just that he had to be sensitive toward antinuclear public sentiment in the wake of the nuclear disaster (in Fukushima)."
In late January, KEPCO announced that it would set up an office in Aomori in June to handle payment-related issues, employing about 70 people. A public relations representative for the company maintained that this had nothing to do with the interim storage facility, but this has not swept away the view that the company is entering Aomori Prefecture to warm the region to the idea of hosting the facility.