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Saturday, Jan. 24, 2004

Rokkasho in dark, or wary, about ITER

Safety doubts, economic touts mount as decision on fusion initiative nears


Staff writer

OSAKA -- Just weeks before a decision is made on whether Japan or France gets to host the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor project, Japanese officials are conducting a last-ditch international campaign to secure support.

But in a village of 11,600 people located near the northernmost tip of Honshu, where the ITER reactor would be built if Japan wins the bid, people don't seem to know too much about the project.

Rokkasho, Aomori Prefecture, was chosen as Japan's candidate site for the ITER project partly because it is already a major center for the nation's nuclear power industry.

It is home to a uranium enrichment plant and two storage facilities for low-level and high-level radioactive waste. A plant designed to reprocess spent nuclear fuel is meanwhile under construction.

The ITER project represents one of the world's most ambitious and controversial energy schemes, featuring the use of nuclear fusion technology to produce energy.

When heated to about 100 million degrees, heavy hydrogen, or tritium, a radioactive isotope of hydrogen, becomes plasma, causing atomic nuclei to collide and combine, producing energy.

But controlling nuclear fusion to produce energy safely and economically is a daunting technological task that has frustrated researchers for decades. At present, one of the few applications of nuclear fusion technology is the hydrogen bomb.

Building the plant will take at least 10 years, while another 20 years will be needed for the reactor to become operational on an experimental basis. The total construction cost of the experimental reactor is estimated to hit at least 700 billion yen.

A final decision on the plant site was supposed to have been made in a December meeting in Washington. But the six parties involved -- Japan, the U.S., Russia, South Korea and the European Union -- failed to reach agreement and decided to hold another meeting in early February.

Earlier this month, members of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's Cabinet agreed that the government should seize every opportunity to boost international backing for Japan's bid. Science minister Takeo Kawamura visited South Korea, China and Russia to garner support.

And yet, despite the importance of the project to Japan's long-term energy strategy, public awareness in Rokkasho still appears to be limited.

The last local poll on the issue -- conducted by a think tank in 2001 -- revealed that just 40 percent of the respondents were aware of the prefecture's efforts to host the project.

In the same survey, which covered 559 people, just 16.5 percent of the respondents said they supported hosting ITER, while 36 percent said they were opposed.

While some recent media reports have focused on the initiative, antinuclear activists point out that local public knowledge is still very limited.

"Since late last year, local media have run stories about the dangers of the ITER project to the local environment, as well as its huge cost. However, there is still no wide recognition within the prefecture of how serious the issue is," says Keiko Kikukawa, who represents the group No to ITER in Aomori Prefecture.

The group consists of about 80 Aomori residents opposed to the project.

"This is because Rokkasho residents opposed to nuclear power have spent the last few years trying to stop the reprocessing center. They have not had a lot of time to think about the ITER project, and information about it has been vague," she said.

Construction of the controversial reprocessing center began in 1993. The central government had overcome local opposition by providing nearly 240 billion yen in public works subsidies to Rokkasho residents and those in surrounding municipalities.

The plant was originally meant to be completed in 2005.

This timetable was pushed back by a year, however, when the government discovered last fall that much of the welding at the plant was shoddy and that improper construction methods had been used.

A small group of opponents has meanwhile filed lawsuits against the reprocessing plant that are are still winding their way through the courts.

While there is not much public debate on whether it was wise to invite ITER to Japan, Nobel Prize-winning physicist Masatoshi Koshiba voiced opposition toward the project.

In an open letter to the government last March, he and Akira Hasegawa, an award-winning scholar in plasma physics, warned that the project could lead to health, environmental and safety dangers through radiation contamination, and called on the government to drop its attempts to host the project.

"Tritium is an extremely dangerous substance that can kill great numbers of people in small amounts. It burns when combined with oxygen, resulting in an extremely dangerous situation should an accident occur," the letter says.

Kiyomi Wakamastu, a journalist with the Aomori Prefecture-based Too Nippo Press who has been covering the ITER project for several years, agrees with Kikukawa that concern over the reprocessing plant has left little time for serious discussion about ITER.

But he also said that local knowledge about the project is limited for technical reasons.

"There have been explanations about what ITER is, but they've been too technically complex for most people in Rokkasho to follow. So they have tended not to want to think too much about the issue," he said.

Those who support hosting the plant claim that the local economic benefits from the project will far outweigh the costs. The Aomori Prefectural Government estimates that, over a 30-year period, the ITER project will add, directly and indirectly, 1.2 trillion yen to the local economy and create 100,000 jobs.

"Many of the jobs will come in the form of new businesses ventures, as well as the service industries that will arise to meet the needs of those working at the ITER. We also predict that academic and research organizations will set up in Aomori," said Mitsuhiro Seki, deputy councilor of the prefecture's ITER Location Promotion Office.

Meanwhile, Takaaki Nakamura of the Aomori Prefecture ITER Invitation Committee, a business lobby, said: "Most of the local business community back the project and have held separate seminars and discussions over the past few years on how to coordinate support, although some remain opposed, or are unsure and want more information."

Both Nakamura and Seki are confident that Rokkasho will be awarded the site, primarily because of its geographical advantages.

In its site proposal, submitted in 2002, Rokkasho played up the convenience of its port facilities, which it said would facilitate the easy transportation of heavy and large components to the ITER site. By contrast, the proposed French site -- at Cadarache -- is some distance from the nearest port.

Concerns about earthquakes were dismissed in the proposal as negligible. And, as Kikukawa notes, very little is said in the proposal about the potential dangers of the project.

"Respected scientists like Koshiba have clearly warned that the safety and cost issues make the ITER project both dangerous and not economical. Other countries, even the United States, which initially proposed it, pulled out (from the race to host the reactor) for similar reasons," she said. "Nobody, except a few people in local politics and the construction industry, wants to host the ITER."

Wakamatsu said the biggest supporters of ITER are those on the village assembly of Rokkasho, of whom nearly all have direct or indirect connections with local construction firms.

"Over half of the workers of Rokkasho are involved in the nuclear power industry. I think most people are just hoping the pro-ITER groups are right and that if the prefecture wins the ITER, it will result in a better economy," he said.



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