Radioactive debris dilemma unresolved, growing worse

No grand plan; hot spots spread; schools just hide dangerous soil

by Jun Hongo

Staff Writer

Second of two parts

The government’s master plan to restore the quake-hit region includes moving housing from the coastline to higher ground, creating “eco-towns” that rely on reusable energy and “making Tohoku better than what it was before the disaster.”

The goals are ambitious.

But the long road to recovery remains stuck at square one, with the government unable to decide how to handle the rubble and radioactive debris that still plague much of the region, not to mention the radioactive waste that is being found far outside of Fukushima.

“This is an issue that affects the safety of the public and calls for a certain amount of thorough examination,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano said last month.

More than three months after the quake and tsunami, the Environment Ministry on June 19 finally released a guideline for managing radioactive debris and waste. It included the terms “for the time being,” and “undecided.”

Specific measures and locations to handle radioactive waste haven’t been settled yet, leaving local governments in Fukushima and other parts of Japan stuck with piles of hazardous waste that exceed the government-set level of acceptable radioactivity.

“This is not something that the central government can unilaterally decide and order. We need close negotiations with the local governments and residents” to come up with complete measures, Edano explained.

Compared with Miyagi and Iwate, the two other prefectures hit hardest by the March 11 calamity, Fukushima got off easier in terms of disaster debris with a total of about 2.8 million tons.

But removing the wreckage is proving to be extremely complicated because much of it has been exposed to radiation, and because there were no official guidelines on how to handle it.

The June 19 release by the Environment Ministry was one of the first guidelines to address the issue, but it is far from comprehensive.

According to the ministry, any radioactive waste measuring 8,000 becquerels of cesium per kilogram can be managed by disposal sites, but separately from other garbage and only if the facility is equipped with special filters.

The ministry said officials settled on 8,000 becquerels because that level is deemed safe for the people directly involved with handling the waste.

Burned and noncombustible waste will then be buried in waste dumps if it shows less than 8,000 becquerels of radiation contamination. Where the burial facility will be constructed remains undecided.

Meanwhile, any waste with more than 8,000 becquerels of cesium will be removed and sealed away while the government mulls over what to do with it next, the ministry said. The June 19 guideline also didn’t cover the debris and waste within the evacuation zone around the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, which remains untouched.

Finding a location to manage the waste appears to be one of the major reasons for the delay. The Environment Ministry originally outlined plans to build the facility in Fukushima, but this was quickly rejected after the prefecture said it “won’t gain the understanding of the public.”

“We just need to take a certain amount of time to make a decision” on the specifics, Edano said.

But time is not a luxury many have, as radiation has contaminated waste found outside of Fukushima Prefecture.

For example, it was learned last month that ash from a sludge plant in Koto Ward, Tokyo, had a level of radioactivity of about 170,000 becquerels per kilogram.

A group of local mothers argue that the area is now a radioactive hot spot and made a request to the metropolitan government to conduct thorough examinations. Pundits fear the lack of a precise guideline may result in contamination at similar sites around the country as there is no specific rules on handling radioactive waste.

The government’s indecision will also be a burden for many students in Fukushima as the summer heat begins to hit the region.

“The temperature is way past 30 degrees, but we need to keep the windows closed. We don’t have a choice,” Takahiro Saito, an official with the Nihonmatsu board of education, told The Japan Times.

Located in central Fukushima Prefecture, some schools in Nihonmatsu were forced to remove soil from their playgrounds after radiation from the Fukushima No. 1 plant contaminated the region.

The education ministry has set a nonbinding target to reduce radiation exposure of Fukushima Prefecture students while they are at school to 1 millisievert or less a year, which means the radiation on school grounds has to measure less than 1 microsievert.

Although radioactivity rose above 6.0 microseiverts per hour at some school grounds in his area, Saito said the numbers improved dramatically after the topsoil was scraped away. The campuses are now below the government-set limit, he said.

And yet the dirt was merely dumped at corners of school grounds and covered with blue plastic tarps because it can’t be handled as normal industrial waste. The central government hasn’t set up a guideline on the matter.

To cope with the heat, Nihonmatsu in May became the first city in Fukushima to come up with a plan to provide air conditioners in all of its elementary and junior high schools.

According to Saito, 306 air conditioners will be set up by the end of July.

The monetary cost will be high, but measures against the heat — especially with the windows sealed tight to avoid inflow of contaminated dust — is indispensable.

“We needed to answer the concerns of the parents, who were simply terrified with the thought of their children spending the summer in classrooms with the windows shut tight,” Saito explained.

Some experts fear that leaving the scraped topsoil on school grounds will only do more harm, and they have called on the government to quickly construct a facility where it can be taken.

In a report by the Atomic Energy Society of Japan, University of Tokyo professor Muneo Morokuzu warned that simply piling the contaminated soil off to the side of a school campus or burying it won’t be sufficient.

In fact, such handling may cause more problems in the medium and long term, he wrote.

Since sweeping it under the rug is not an option, many are requesting that the entity responsible for the disaster act fast.

“I think Tepco needs to be in charge of handling the radioactive material,” Nihonmatsu’s Saito said. “It’s a matter of course that those responsible for contaminating our region should be held responsible for taking care of the debris.”