FUKUSHIMA – At around 11 a.m. on Oct. 18, members of the media and local residents crowded around in front of a house in the Onami district in the city of Fukushima.
The gathering was partly because Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda was about to attend the kickoff of the city’s radiation decontamination work on all residences in the area in a program that is slated to run two years.
Locals were curious to see what the cleanup — washing the houses’ walls and roofs with a high-pressure water hose — would be like after their lengthy efforts to get city officials to take action.
“Finally, (the cleanup of the houses) is starting. I have to say this is a little too late,” said a 63-year-old woman who lives in Onami, a neighborhood whose claim to fame is its high radiation readings due to nuclear fallout from the Fukushima No. 1 power plant.
While the government is aiming to clean up areas that have recorded high radiation levels, the municipalities and residents are actually carrying out decontamination in areas where annual radiation levels are less than 20 millisieverts.
Since home radiation cleanup chores were the last thing locals thought about before the catastrophe struck, municipalities are still trying to work out ways to carry it out effectively and involve residents in the process.
Many people living in Fukushima, especially those with small children and babies, are worried about radiation and want to know how to lessen the danger.
“We have removed vegetation from our yard every day,” and the radiation level decreased from 1.2 microsieverts per hour to about 0.8 microsievert, said the woman in Onami.
If someone is exposed to 0.8 microsievert 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, that would amount to about 7 millisieverts over the course of a year. While Japan’s legal limit is 1 millisievert per year, Fukushima residents are being allowed to live in areas recording less than 20 millisieverts per year since March 11.
The woman has three grandchildren, so she wants to do as much as she can to prevent them from being exposed.
For residents, however, cleaning their roofs is difficult so the kickoff of the city’s decontamination work was something many had been waiting for, although the city’s move was not as quick as residents had wished.
“I understand the residents’ claim that it was slow. I myself think that there should have been a system that enabled us to act more quickly,” said Fukushima Mayor Takanori Seto.
“Japan does not have any legal guidelines about what to do in the event of a radiation disaster, but municipalities have been somehow trying to deal with the situation,” Seto said in frustration.
It took more than five months for the central government to come up with a basic policy for decontamination work.
Based on that policy, municipalities have drafted their own boots-on-the-ground cleanup plans, with many placing priority on lowering radiation readings at schools and along school routes.
The city of Fukushima, for instance, aims to decrease radiation levels in areas where people carry out their daily lives, such as houses, schools, stores and public facilities, to less than 1 microsievert per hour in two years.
As for areas where readings are currently below 1 microsievert per hour, the city plans to cut radiation levels by 60 percent in two years.
While municipalities are trying to proceed with cleanup efforts, it is difficult for them to do everything alone.
Thus the participation of residents is essential, and some cities are organizing ways to better involve their residents in these programs.
Fukushima has created a manual explaining decontamination work for residents and it has also organized several training sessions for people working in decontamination-related fields.
In Date, which is located next to the city of Fukushima, the municipal government opened a decontamination support center for residents on Oct. 11.
In a building next to City Hall, decontamination experts are advising residents.
Tools for cleaning, such as brushes, high-pressure sprayers and bags to store waste, are either given away or are allowed to be used free of charge.
Kimihiro Sugeno, a Date official, said since people are concerned about radiation around their homes, “we wanted to have a one-stop service facility for decontamination” in which people can get advice and tools.
The center also provides a service to check radiation levels in food products.
Since the opening, decontamination experts at the center said they are fielding about 10 consultations a day on average. The most common inquiry from affected residents is how to decontaminate their houses.
On the afternoon of Oct. 18, half a dozen people stopped by to seek expert help and to borrow tools for cleaning.
A woman in her 60s said she came to know about the center through a TV program and visited it to pick up some bags to store waste in, as she wanted to remove vegetation and soil in her garden as well as at her son’s house.
While the city is planning to provide decontamination work for all houses of its residents within two years, the woman said she can’t wait.
“I have a grandchild who was born in July, so I want to clean up my son’s house as soon as possible,” she said. “I want to protect my grandchild.”