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Updated: December 7, 2011 23:25 IST

Japan split on hope for vast radiation cleanup

Martin Fackler
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A decontamination operation at Litate in the Fukushima prefecture. Photo: AP
A decontamination operation at Litate in the Fukushima prefecture. Photo: AP

Futaba is a modern-day ghost town — not a boomtown gone bust, not even entirely a victim of the devastating earthquake and tsunami that levelled other parts of Japan's northeast coast.

Its traditional wooden homes have begun to sag and collapse since they were abandoned in March by residents fleeing the nuclear plant on the edge of town that began spiralling toward disaster. Roofs possibly damaged by the earth's shaking have let rain seep in, starting the rot that is eating at the houses from the inside.

The roadway arch at the entrance to the empty town almost seems a taunt. It reads: “Nuclear energy: a correct understanding brings a prosperous lifestyle.”

Those who fled Futaba are among the nearly 90,000 people evacuated from a 12-mile zone around the Fukushima Daiichi plant and another area to the northwest contaminated when a plume from the plant scattered radioactive caesium and iodine.

The cleanup plan

Now, Japan is drawing up plans for a cleanup that is both monumental and unprecedented, in the hopes that those displaced can go home.

The debate over whether to repopulate the area, if trial cleanups prove effective, has become a proxy for a larger battle over the future of Japan. Supporters see rehabilitating the area as a chance to showcase the country's formidable determination and superior technical skills — proof that Japan is still a great power.

For them, the cleanup is a perfect metaphor for Japan's rebirth.

Critics counter that the effort to clean Fukushima Prefecture could end up as perhaps the biggest of Japan's white-elephant public works projects — and yet another example of post-disaster Japan reverting to the wasteful ways that have crippled economic growth for two decades.

So far, the government is following a pattern set since the nuclear accident, dismissing dangers, often prematurely, and labouring to minimise the scope of the catastrophe. Already, the trial cleanups have stalled: the government failed to anticipate communities' reluctance to store tons of soil to be scraped from contaminated yards and fields.

And a radiation specialist who tested the results of an extensive local cleanup in a nearby city found that exposure levels remained above international safety standards for long-term habitation.

Even a vocal supporter of repatriation suggests that the government has not yet levelled with its people about the seriousness of their predicament.

“I believe it is possible to save Fukushima,” said the supporter, Tatsuhiko Kodama, director of the Radioisotope Center at the University of Tokyo. “But many evacuated residents must accept that it won't happen in their lifetimes.”

To judge the huge scale of what Japan is contemplating, consider that experts say residents can return home safely only after thousands of buildings are scrubbed of radioactive particles and much of the topsoil from an area the size of Connecticut is replaced.

Even forested mountains will probably need to be decontaminated, which might necessitate clear-cutting and literally scraping them clean.

Chernobyl

The Soviet Union did not attempt such a cleanup after the Chernobyl accident of 1986, the only nuclear disaster larger than that at Fukushima Daiichi. The government instead relocated about 300,000 people, abandoning vast tracts of farmland.

Many Japanese officials believe that they do not have that luxury; the evacuation zone covers more than three per cent of the landmass of this densely populated nation.

“We are different from Chernobyl,” said Toshitsuna Watanabe, 64, the mayor of Okuma, one of the towns that was evacuated. “We are determined to go back. Japan has the will and the technology to do this.”

Such resolve reflects, in part, a deep attachment to home for rural Japanese like Mr. Watanabe, whose family has lived in Okuma for 19 generations. Their heartfelt appeals to go back have won wide sympathy across Japan, making it hard for people to oppose their wishes.

But quiet resistance has begun to grow, both among those who were displaced and those who fear the country will need to sacrifice too much without guarantees that a multibillion-dollar cleanup will provide enough protection.

Soothing pronouncements by local governments and academics about the eventual ability to live safely near the ruined plant can seem to be based on little more than hope.

No one knows how much exposure to low doses of radiation causes a significant risk of premature death. That means Japanese living in contaminated areas are likely to become the subjects of future studies — the second time in seven decades that Japanese have become a test case for the effects of radiation exposure, after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The national government has declared itself responsible for cleaning up only the towns in the evacuation zone; local governments have already begun cleaning cities and towns outside that area.

Inside the 12-mile ring, which includes Futaba, the Environmental Ministry has pledged to reduce radiation levels by half within two years — a relatively easy goal because short-lived isotopes will deteriorate. The bigger question is how long it will take to reach the ultimate goal of bringing levels down to about 1 millisievert per year, the annual limit for the general public from artificial sources of radiation that is recommended by the International Commission on Radiological Protection. That is a much more daunting task given that it will require removing caesium 137, an isotope that will remain radioactive for decades.

Trial cleanups have been delayed for months by the search for a storage site for enough contaminated dirt to fill 33 domed football stadiums. Even evacuated communities have refused to accept it.

And Tomoya Yamauchi, the radiation expert from Kobe University who performed tests in Fukushima City after extensive remediation efforts, found that radiation levels inside homes had dropped by only about 25 per cent. That left parts of the city with levels of radiation four times higher than the recommended maximum exposure.

“We can only conclude that these efforts have so far been a failure,” he said.

Minamisoma, a small city whose centre sits about 15 miles from the nuclear plant, is a good place to get a sense of the likely limitations of decontamination efforts.

The city has cleaned dozens of schools, parks and sports facilities in hopes of enticing back the 30,000 of its 70,000 residents who have yet to return since the accident. — New York Times News Service

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