Field Note: Horonobe

Betonite clay, sellofane, stainless steel, vitrified high level radioactive waste
Betonite clay, sellofane, stainless steel, vitrified high level radioactive waste

23rd July, 2014. I write in a small apartment in Sapporo, Japan, it’s at least 30 degrees, the sun sets quickly and the traffic is relentless. Last night I came back from a two day field trip to the north of Hokkaido with a group of artists and activists as part of the Actinium project in Sapporo. The aim of the trip was to experience that mythical journey deep underground to see the engineering and geological research into radioactive waste storage. But first we had to see the research into energy diversity in the Horonobe region as a local context for the Underground Research Laboratory (URL). Travelling as a group of twelve on a small bus enabled us to reflect on our journey and experiences from artistic and political perspectives from Hokkaido, England, Scotland, America and Canada. On the first day we drove along the coast road for six hours up to Wakkanai, on the northern tip of the Hokkaido Island.

There is no doubt that Hokkaido is a beautiful island, that the land is lush, the cows are beautiful, the milk is creamy, the farmers are passionate. About 2,000 nuclear refugees have moved to Hokkaido following the 2011 Fukushima Daichii Power Plant meltdown, and I’ve met many more people who have chosen jobs here rather than along the East coast who probably aren’t included in the stats. Hokkaido is the land of good food, fine whisky, and now international contemporary art.

We visit a publicly funded solar panel research project and a wind farm, the turbines are low so that they don’t interfere with aircraft, their blades whoosh through the air. We are guided by a council official who explains the background to the renewable energy infrastructure in the region. These technologies are presented to us as complicated, restricted, expensive. The region’s main power distribution cable is too small to carry the electricity produced here to the national grid, it will be costly to replace it. These renewable energy devices are not very efficient, using electricty to run them in the first place. Interestingly the windfarm is used to power the water company. It’s a hot windy day, underfoot seashells prevent the weeds from growing around the solar panels. People in Japan pay an extra contribution on top of their bills towards renewable energy.

Slowly we trace a flow of money through the landscape. We meet farmer Kruse who explains how the URL financing of local councils has encouraged people to accept the site. He tells us about the agreement between the government and the local council to keep the URL only as a test lab, and never to bring radioactive waste there. He believes that a final repository wont be built at Horonobe, not because the agreement could be easily overruled, but because the site is on a fault line and has lots of water in it. More importantly he tells us how the mineshaft has been slowly deforming, and how the engineers have been building thicker and stronger outer walls to keep it in place (no-one in the URL mentions this). He has a strong sense of legacy, of handing on his farm to his children and grandchildren, without the fears of radioaction leaking into the water supply. We walk through the fields to meet his cows and eat their icecream.

Like all nuclear facilities, the Horonobe Underground Research Laboratory tries too hard to identify itself with nature. Not only has the reindeer farm been relocated to the site to add to the tourist attraction, the URL buildings are decorated with cute reindeer cartoons. Full-colour vistas of meadows and reindeer punctuate the technical details of the displays, whilst images of electrical consumption are strangely absent. There’s no information on how many cylinders or vitrified waste I will produce in my lifetime, or the total cost of nuclear generated electricity, or how many heated-toilet seats it takes to produce one container of waste. We are shown around by a very helpful friendly guide, but another figure lurks on the periphery of our group, never leaving us for a second. He’s listening intently, seriously. I can only presume he’s the PR for JAEA, as it seems he is observing our guides as much as us.

In contrast to the tours of renewable energy, the URL visitor center tour doesn’t mention efficiency, this science is funded directly from government through the Japan Atomic Energy Authority (the letters JAEA are embroidered on our blue boiler suits). In response to a myriad of questions, our engineer guide explains that as a research facility they are not funded by the electricity companies, but through the Ministry for Culture, Sport and Education.  Perhaps rather too obviously we point out that the cost of the facility isn’t included in the cost of nuclear power, which, along with the clean up operation of Fukushima, would make nuclear redundant through inefficiency of resources and finance.

The scale of the URL is a spectacular giant film set, cross sections of prototypes situated within the narrative of geological deep time. The visitor centre rivals any museum display: the simulated lift, the reconstruction of the flask of vitrified waste wrapped in betonite clay (wrapped in sellofane to stop it drying out), the massive bright yellow machinery, presumably the automated system for depositing the waste in the drift tunnels. This is not just a display of testing the strength of the containers, or the properties of bentonite, it’s a demonstation of how to build and fill an underground repository. However, the premise of the URL and its PR operation is built around an agreement between JAEA (Japan Atomic Energy Authority) and the Horonobe Local Council promising that the URL will never store radioactive waste, that after the research project the tunnels will be filled in and never used again. The documents are framed on the wall.

At our site visits, we are joined by a group of lawyers working on cases to prevent the reopening of unsafe nuclear power stations in Japan. They have already won the Ohi judgement in Fukui, May 21st 2014.  The lawyers explain that the URL agreement is more of a declaration than a contract, and it not legally binding. The statements are called Ordinances, and are only available in Japanese here:  One of the lawyers tells me how she is representing people whose livelihoods have been destroyed by the Fukushima Daiichi Power Plant disaster claiming compensation from TEPCO.

As I write the BBC news announces that the British government wants to scrap the formal community veto which allows local democracy exercise their right to ‘volunteer’ or not to host a geologic radioactive waste repository.

Underground is another experience I'll leave to the artists to report another day.