The following news summaries are by Jeff Durbin. They are based mainly on information taken from The Asahi Evening News (AEN), The Daily Yomiuri (DY), and The Japan Times (JT).
The government is taking steps toward an environmental assessment law, which would consider environment impacts before large projects like dams, highways, and airports are begun. Local residents would also have a say during the assessment period. Until now the main obstacle had been the Ministry of International Trade and Industry's (MITI) demand that power stations be exempt. MITI wanted to apply separate legislation to power plants, but has now decided to give up its demand. The Environment Agency is working with MITI to draft a bill, with a vote possible in this spring's Diet session. According to the proposed bill, the Environment Agency could call for review of an assessment if it chooses. Japan is the only industrialized nation without an environmental assessment law. The government has tried seven times to pass one, and if it fails again it could be embarrassed on its home turf at the December 1997 Kyoto meeting of the U.N. Convention on Climate Change, where over 150 nations will set targets for reducing global-warming emissions. (JT 29 Jan/6 Mar; DY 9 Feb)
Japan has exchanged communiques with Belgium and the European Union in advance of contracting to have MOX produced in Belgium from spent nuclear fuel. The fuel will come from Japanese reactors operated by Tokyo Electric. The utility plans to use the MOX in commercial reactors, following the government's new pluthermal policy (see above stories). MOX production is under the umbrella of the U.N.'s International Atomic Energy Agency, which must ensure that spent fuel is not used for any other purposes. (JT 11 Feb)
A plan for an offshore port facility on reclaimed land in Osaka Bay has emerged from a closed-door session of an Osaka municipal committee. The 300 billion yen ($2.5 billion) project includes four 15-meter deep berths. With businesses in Osaka going global, supporters say, container ships need more places to dock. Critics say the city has not released enough information about the plan to evaluate its impact on navigation safety and the environment; a public report in January was largely censored. The island would be constructed near Yumeshima from waste, plus sand and earth from rivermouths around Osaka Bay. (JT 12 Feb)
The national government and nuclear industry are trying to persuade prefectural governments and citizens that MOX fuel is suitable for Japanese commercial reactors. The Cabinet and the Federation of Electric Power Companies have decided to promote what is called the pluthermal process. MOX is mixed oxide fuel, a uranium-plutonium combination that until now has not been used in conventional reactors. With the fast-breeder program on hold in the aftermath of the December 1995 Monju accident, burning MOX fuel in light water reactors is an alternative way to use the plutonium in spent fuel. Critics of Japan's pluthermal program, however, say MOX is a riskier fuel than uranium. Monju, Japan's prototype fast-breeder reactor, was a key link in Japan's future nuclear fuel cycle, whereby more plutonium fuel is produced than consumed. If no more fast-breeder reactors are constructed, the plutonium surplus will likely cause concern in Asia over Japan's nuclear weapons capability. The government intends to burn MOX in two reactors, belonging to Kansai and Tokyo Electric, starting in 1999, and in as many as 15 reactors by 2010. Thirty-three percent of Japan's energy comes from nuclear power. (JT 28 Jan; 5/22 Feb)
The Diet is expected to pass a bill this session that would strictly regulate human activity and tourism in Antarctica. The bill is the first step in Japan's obligation to the South Pole Treaty, a 1991 agreement among 26 countries. The treaty goes into effect when all nations have signed it; only Japan and Russia have not yet done so. Under the treaty, plants and animals cannot be collected, nor waste disposed, and tourist trips will be limited. All activities will require publicly-released environmental assessments, and a 90-day period for opinions from other treaty members. There is already an international agreement banning resource extraction in Antarctica (JT 23 Feb). With the treaty expected to go into force soon, Japan's Antarctic Showa Base will be cleaned up. The observation ship Shirase will return to Japan this spring carrying 25 tons of old equipment, with more garbage due to be shipped home later. Old snow tractors, cranes, truck, drums, and other debris from 40 years of use are piled up at the base (DY 22 Feb).