By Yoko Kubota
TOKYO (Reuters) - Japanese officials in towns around the crippled Fukushima nuclear plant reacted guardedly to plans announced on Saturday to build facilities to store radioactive waste from the clean-up around the plant within three years.
Saturday's announcement, seven months after the world's worst nuclear disaster in 25 years, came as towns near the plant are still coping with health fears and disputes over where to store huge amounts of unwanted waste.
"We cannot proceed without cooperation of the prefecture and municipalities. We are very sorry to ask for this, but we hope you will understand," Environment Minister Goshi Hosono told Fukushima Governor Yuhei Sato, Kyodo news agency reported.
The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, 240 km (150 miles) northeast of Tokyo, was crippled by an earthquake and tsunami in March.
The plume of radioactive materials that leaked from the plant was carried by wind and deposited widely in eastern Japan with rain and snow.
Japan aims to halve radiation over two years in places contaminated by the crisis. To do so, it may have to remove and dispose of massive amounts of radioactive soil, possibly enough to fill 23 baseball stadiums.
Towns near the crippled nuclear plant have barely been able to start cleaning up until now because they have been unable to convince residents about where to store the radioactive waste.
Hosono said it would take about three years to build facilities to store soil and other waste containing radioactive materials, mainly cesium, for up to 30 years, Kyodo said.
Local authorities would have to keep the contaminated waste in their towns until the facility is ready.
"We've been aiming to start cleaning up as soon as possible," said Toshiaki Kusano, an official at Fukushima city, 60 km (40 miles) northwest of the plant.
"To do so, we need to talk about where to store the waste, but we have not been able to answer the question that the residents have -- how long it was going to stay there?"
However he also said he welcomed the announcement because it showed the waste would not stay in his town forever.
But finding storage space would still be hard, he said, as would be waste management such as preventing radiation leaks.
Fukushima city currently has only one storage area. Waste generated from cleaning up Fukushima city could fill 10 baseball stadiums, Kusano said.
Officials from other towns said they could cope with waste management, provided they could find places to store it.
"The biggest problem is whether we can win the residents' consensus," said Kazuhiro Shiga, an official working on decontamination at Minami Soma city, about 25 km (15 miles)northwest of the Fukushima Daiichi plant.
In Minami Soma, top soil scraped from school playgrounds and
house yards is kept on site, piled up in corners or buried. The city has not been able to decide on a single storage location for the soil because of resistance from residents.
"Once we can win their consensus, then we, the local government, will do our best to take care of the waste for five years. That is a manageable issue. The greatest hurdle is the first step," Shiga said.
The government has so far raised 220 billion yen ($2.9 billion) for decontamination work and the environment ministry has requested about another 460 billion yen in the budget for the fiscal year from next April. Some experts say the cleanup will cost trillions of yen.
The U.N. atomic watchdog suggested this month that Japan should be less conservative in cleaning up vast contaminated areas, saying that there are cleanup methods that do not require storage.
(Additional reporting by Antoni Slodkowski; Editing by Paul Tait)