Originally created 03/12/98

Standoff continues over shipload of nuclear waste



ROKKASHO, Japan -- For the second straight day, a ship carrying 30 tons of nuclear waste sat off this northern Japanese village today while a local official refused it permission to dock.

The British-flagged Pacific Swan had been scheduled to arrive early Tuesday with waste to be stored in this seaside village, 325 miles northeast of Tokyo. The spent nuclear fuel, from Japanese nuclear power plants, had been processed in France for disposal here.

The defiant official, Gov. Morio Kimura, has demanded assurances from Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto that a permanent storage site will be built elsewhere.

Gov. Kimura forced a one-day delay in the unloading of the first waste shipment in 1995 by demanding the government clarify its position on finding the permanent site. The second shipment last year was met by angry protesters.

Many residents of Rokkasho are worried about the safety of nuclear facilities, especially after a series of recent accidents at other plants, including a fire and explosion at a processing plant a year ago.

Not all here oppose nuclear energy. The nuclear industry is a key source of livelihood for many of this village's 11,000 people.

"We are so indebted to Japan Nuclear Fuel," said gas station worker Hidenori Matsuo, referring to the operator of the storage site. "If they do it safely, we should allow it."

But an editorial today in the local To-o Nippo newspaper urged the central government to be more sensitive to the fears of those who live close to nuclear facilities. It said Rokkasho was being used as a dumping site for nuclear waste, "like an apartment without a bathroom."

Japan sends its spent nuclear fuel to France and Britain, where plutonium is extracted for use in its breeder reactor program. The remaining waste is sealed with melted glass into metal canisters, then shipped back for storage in Rokkasho.

Nuclear officials say the shipments are safe. But activists argue Rokkasho is a dangerous place for storage because it sits on at least two active earthquake faults.

Nuclear facilities in Japan are in the sparsely populated, poorer regions of the country that consume relatively little electricity. That angers many local residents, who believe their safety is being compromised for fuel-guzzling Japanese cities.

The use of the high seas to transport the reprocessed fuel has also drawn criticism abroad.

The first two ships transporting processed fuel to Japan were forced to go around South America and Africa after protests by Caribbean nations, and three Greenpeace activists were arrested last month for boarding the Pacific Swan as it entered the Panama Canal.