Doubtful if, despite expensive clean-up, Fukushima area will ever be habitable again

Return to the radiation zone: Fukushima clean-up operation mired in fear and misinformation Two years after Japan’s nuclear power plant disaster nobody knows for certain how dangerous the contamination is THE INDEPENDENT DAVID MCNEILL Author Biography , MIGUEL QUINTANA FUKUSHIMA WEDNESDAY 11 SEPTEMBER 2013″……..Nobody knows for certain how dangerous the radiation is. Japan’s central government refined its policy in December 2011, defining evacuation zones as “areas where cumulative dose levels might reach 20 millisieverts per year [20 mSv/yr],” the typical worldwide limit for nuclear power plant engineers and other radiation workers.

The worst radiation is supposed to be confined to the 20km exclusion zone, but it spread unevenly: less than 5km north of the Daiichi plant, our Geiger counter shows less than 5 millisieverts a year; 40km north west, in parts of Iitate village, it is well over 120 millisieverts. Those 160,000 refugees have not returned and are scattered throughout Japan. The nuclear diaspora is swelled by thousands of voluntary refugees who, unlike the Saitos, have not returned. Local governments are spending millions of dollars to persuade them back.

The price tag for cleaning a heavily mountainous and wooded area roughly the same size as County Wicklow (2,000 sq km) has government heads spinning. In August, experts from the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology put the total cost of decontamination at $50bn (£31.6bn). The Japan Centre ?for Economic Research, a Tokyo-based think-tank says the final tally will be $600bn.

Mr Saito’s home falls within the boundaries of Minamisoma, a city that has never recovered from the disaster.   Most of its 71,000 population fled voluntarily 20km south. A third have yet to return, spooked by lingering radiation and the fear of another calamity at the still unstable facility.

“We’ve worked hard to make our city livable again,” says Mayor Katsunobu Sakurai. “But everything we’ve done could be for nothing unless the problems at the plant are fixed.”

Fighting radiation is now one of Minamisoma’s few growth industries. The city has set up a permanent office to co-ordinate decontamination with a budget this year alone of $230m.

Since last September, a crew of 650 men has laboured around the local streets and countryside, cleaning schools, homes and farms. By the end of the year, the operation will employ nearly 1,000 people – a large chunk of the town’s remaining able-bodied workforce……..

Critics say toxins wash down from the mountains and forests after the decontamination crews leave, bringing radiation levels back up – though seldom to previous levels.

The disagreement over real radiation levels is far from academic. Local governments are desperate for evacuees to return and must decide on what basis, in terms of exposure to radiation, evacuation orders will be lifted. If they unilaterally declare their areas safe, evacuees could be forced to choose between returning home and losing vital monthly compensation from Tokyo Electric Power Co. (Tepco), operator of the ruined Daiichi complex.

For the refugees, one worrying precedent has been set in the municipality of Date, which lies outside the most contaminated areas. In December 2012, the local government lifted a “special evacuation” order imposed on 129 households because of a hotspot, arguing that radiation doses had fallen below 20 millisieverts per year. Three months later the residents lost the $1,000 a month they were receiving from Tepco for “psychological stress.”……..

The Fukushima clean-up, however, faces another, perhaps insurmountable, problem: securing sites to store contaminated soil, leaves and sludge. Many landowners baulk at hosting “interim” dumps – in principle for three years – until the central government builds a mid-term storage facility.

Local governments throughout Japan have refused to accept the toxic waste, meaning it will probably stay in Fukushima for good. The waste is stored under blue tarpaulins across much of the prefecture, sometimes close to schools and homes. ….“Whatever happens, we will never have what we had before. It’s clear that my grandchildren will never come here again”.


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