Fukushima’s intractable and ever mounting problem of nuclear wastes

Fukushima nuclear plant cleanup has cost $13 billion and counting  After 4 years, Fukushima nuclear cleanup remains daunting, vast LA Times, By JULIE MAKINEN contact the reporter 12 Mar 15 “…..Karimata is in charge of the work here in an evacuation zone about 12 miles north of the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant—part of the most extensive, and expensive, nuclear cleanup ever attempted.

The scale and complexity of what Japan is trying to do in the aftermath of the 2011 meltdown at Fukushima is mind-boggling. Decontamination plans are being executed for 105 cities, towns and villages affected by the accident at Fukusima Dai-ichi, 140 miles northeast of Tokyo.

Many Japanese regard this massive undertaking as a solemn obligation to right a terrible wrong. Others, even some of the people directly affected, question whether it’s a quixotic waste of resources.

Karimata’s delegation marches up a side street to check on a brigade of laborers wearing gloves, masks, helmets and fluorescent vests with radiation detectors tucked in their chest pockets. Some are spreading fresh soil in the yard of an uninhabited home. Next door, workers are up on a scaffold, preparing to wipe down the roof and gutters.

Across the street, near a bamboo grove, two men are erecting a plastic frame to support a massive double-lined garbage bag about the size of a hot tub. Dozens of identical black sacks, each weighing about a ton and stuffed with radiation-contaminated soil, leaves, wood chippings and other debris, stretch out behind them, awaiting transport at some uncertain date to a yet-unspecified final resting place.

Four years after the Great Tohoku Earthquake shook northern Japan to its core, touched off a deadly tsunami and precipitated the Fukushima Dai-ichi disaster, hundreds of square miles remain off-limits for habitation due to radioactivity. Some 79,000 people still cannot return home.

But unlike the 1986 accident at Chernobyl, where authorities simply declared a 1,000 square-mile no-habitation zone, resettled 350,000 people and essentially decided to let the radiation dissipate over decades or centuries, Japan is attempting to make the Fukushima region livable again. It is an unprecedented effort.

The sheer manpower and money dedicated to the house-to-house effort is staggering: In the last four years, the government has spent $13.5 billion on decontamination efforts outside the nuclear plant, and the budget request for the fiscal year starting in April is another $3.48 billion, said Seiji Tsutsui, director of the international cooperation office for radioactive decontamination at the Environment Ministry.

At the peak, some 18,000 people were doing decontamination work; as of early February, that number had dropped to 12,000. But around Minamisoma, there are still so many workers that residents in the northern part of town – which is not under evacuation orders – complain of heavy traffic as laborers commute to job sites and orange, yellow and turquoise backhoes and other equipment is moved from field to field.

The fruits of the laborers’ efforts are stacked in those giant sacks—5.5 million of them and counting. They are spread out across Fukushima province, along roadsides, in parking lots and backyards. They are tagged and bar-coded so authorities know what’s inside and how radioactive it is – and when the bags might start to wear out.

As the bags pile up and workers fan out across the landscape, some locals are questioning the cost-benefit analysis.

“Decontamination – the activity is endless. The huge amount they are spending, maybe it would be better spent helping residents” resettle elsewhere, says Iwao Hoshi, a former city official in Minamisoma. Unlike tsunami victims whose homes were ruined and realized they had to move on, he says, many radiation evacuees are stuck in limbo, knowing their homes are still standing……..

In addition to wiping down roofs, gutters and walls, the workers scrape several inches of soil off the most contaminated farmland and replace it. Less-contaminated ground is “turned over” to a depth of 12 to 16 inches. Forest areas are also being attended to as well—within 65 feet of homes. That work is complex, Karimata says, because radioactive material fell on leaves in 2011, and those leaves then dropped to the ground, and have been covered over by several more seasons of detritus.

“Now, if you remove the top layer, radiation actually goes up. There’s also an erosion problem,” he says. “Many people want us to do the whole forest, but it’s expensive and can create more dangers than we have now.”……

The Environment Ministry wants to wrap up the cleaning brigades by 2017, but where to put all the material they’ve collected remains a vexing challenge. Authorities recently started construction on a massive specialized landfill in a pink zone just outside the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant. When complete, it is expected to hold between 16 million and 22 million bags of debris – enough to fill about 15 baseball stadiums…….

Even if all those details could be worked out immediately, there is still the question of just how to get millions of bags of radioactive debris to the landfill. A 10-ton truck can only carry seven bags at a time. At that rate, transport could take decades. Material might have to be put into fresh bags if they start to break down before they can be moved.

Tatsuhiko Kodama, director of Tokyo University’s Radioisotope Center, who has been recruited by Minamisoma to chair its Committee to Promote Decontamination, says the government’s plan is “nearly impossible” and makes no sense.

“The government is simply putting soil into bags with no plan for recycling,” said Kodama, who has been visiting the area on a weekly basis. “The residents don’t trust the government so much.”

Only if the material is condensed will it be possible to gather it in a central location, Kodama believes.

Kodama believes some decontamination of bagged waste can be done locally. To that end, he has been trying to encourage authorities to build local waste recycling facilities that heat soil to high temperatures to remove radioactive material like cesium. A demonstration project that can process 10 tons a day has already been built in Iitate, a ghost town just west of Minamisoma that just before the disaster had been named one of Japan’s most beautiful villages………..http://www.latimes.com/world/asia/la-fg-fukushima-nuclear-cleanup-20150311-story.html#page=2

 

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