Going Underground in Sweden

…where they actually can get a repository built for “high-level” nuclear waste (they think)

Follow the yellow brick road? The Äspö Hard Rock Laboratory in Sweden. (Photo: Ingrid Becker)

This summer, Climate Watch will launch a three-part radio series on the nuclear waste dilemma. As part of the reporting for that series, The California Report’s senior producer, Ingrid Becker, traveled to Sweden to examine a program touted as a potential model for the world. This dispatch is the second part of her series preview.

The road to Äspö from Gothenburg, where I arrived from San Francisco, winds through a storybook landscape of small farms, lush forests and brick-red houses. Road signs warning of moose crossings pop up at regular intervals along the highways and back roads.

Traditional wooden houses like this one dot the landscape in Småland, the historical province where the Swedes have built a demonstration laboratory for storing spent nuclear fuel. (Photo: Ingrid Becker)

And so it was a bit jarring to later find myself in a granite cavern, standing face-to-face with giant copper tubes, enormous machinery and a specially designed fuel transport vehicle quaintly named after one of the Viking gods.

The trip, 340 meters (1,115 feet) below ground to the demonstration tunnel takes a full minute in a noisy and slightly bumpy elevator. Before we enter the tunnel, I must strap on a transponder, a safety precaution in case of emergency. At this point I’m asking myself if I should be alarmed, but the attentive public relations officer assures me that since the facility opened in 1995, about 10,000 visitors a year have made this trek. Continue reading

Trash Day in Tokyo: The Learning Curve

KQED’s Los Angeles Bureau Chief and frequent Climate Watch contributor Rob Schmitz is spending six weeks in Japan, as part of  the Abe Fellowship for Journalists. In the weeks to come he’ll file a series of special reports on Japan’s extraordinary strides in energy efficiency–and what we might learn from them.

Today was combustible garbage day in my neighborhood. On Tuesdays and Fridays, residents place all their garbage deemed ‘burnable’ out on the curb. At promptly 8 a.m., it is taken away and, presumably, burned.

Burn after reading? Recycling instructions in Japan.

Burn after reading? Trash day instructions in Japan.

I had a lot of questions about what was considered combustible and the sign on the light post advertising the pick-up days wasn’t very helpful. My wife and I brought our 11-month-old son here. Were diapers considered ‘burnable’? I knocked on the Webers’ door to ask. Terry and Sherry Weber live next door. They’ve been working as teachers in Tokyo for 27 years. They told me that up until recently, plastic products were not considered burnable items, but all of that changed this year, and now it’s apparently fine to deposit plastic items like diapers on the curb on combustible garbage day. Either way, they told me, if the sanitation officials see that I’ve tried to sneak in some non-combustibles on the incorrect day, they’d leave it on the curb with a note, scolding me for screwing it all up.

I put a bag of diapers and another bag of what I thought were burnable items on the curb, nervous that I’d be the laughing stock of my new neighborhood. An hour later, the garbage truck arrived, two men got out, inspected my garbage, and dumped all of it into the back of their truck.

The dreaded Tokyo city sanitation department gives me a passing grade on my burnable/non-burnable garbage sorting skills.

The dreaded Tokyo city sanitation department gives me a passing grade on my burnable/non-burnable garbage sorting skills.

Whew. Now I’ve got to prepare for Thursday, which is recyclables day. I’m supposed to separate all of my recyclables into paper, cardboard, plastic, and cans, and bundle each of them with string. Wish me luck.

Elsewhere on the waste disposal front:

I usually don’t get excited about toilets. But the toilet in my apartment here in Tokyo has inspired me to great heights.

It doesn't look exciting. But look more closely...

It doesn't look exciting. But look more closely...

The toilet gives the user two types of flushes: the ‘big’ flush, or the ‘small’ flush, so that you can control how much water you’ll need, thereby conserving this precious resource.

Please start importing these for your customers!

Parched water districts of California: Please start importing these for your customers!

But that’s not what got me excited. What I was really impressed by was when you flush the toilet, water is pumped into the tank at the back of the toilet via a faucet. It runs into a basin on top of the tank where you can wash your hands with the water before it enters the toilet for the next flush. Genius. Pure genius. Why don’t we see more of these in California, where water is an even more precious resource than it is here?

Editor’s Note: Dual-flush toilets are now available in California. But the piggy-back sink–that’s a new one for me. –CM