Osaka pushes incendiary tsunami debris plan

Move to burn 36,000 tons from Iwate, bury it in bay spooks locals

by Eric Johnston

Staff Writer

Despite fears of radioactive contamination, Osaka Prefecture is finalizing plans to begin incinerating 36,000 tons of tsunami debris from Iwate Prefecture next month.

The debris is scheduled to be burned in the city of Osaka’s harbor district. The resulting ash will then become landfill on Yumeshima, or “Dream Island,” a man-made isle in Osaka Bay that was once a proposed site for the city’s failed 2008 Summer Olympics bid.

Originally, the prefecture was supposed to have begun burning the debris last spring. But local opposition due to fears the incineration would create highly radioactive ash delayed the start. Critics argued that even with special filters at the incineration plant, radioactive ash would still pollute the air, and that it was folly to bury the ash in the bay area.

The prefecture’s maximum radiation limit for incinerated ash is 2,000 becquerels per kilogram, far stricter than the central government threshold of 8,000 becquerels. Critics, however, warned the true health hazard was being underplayed by local officials, and that it was important not to focus on the 2,000-becquerel standard but on the dangers presented by burning 36,000 tons with that degree of contamination.

However, after the Osaka Ishin no Kai (One Osaka)-controlled prefectural assembly gave its OK, with the backing of both Osaka Gov. Ichiro Matsui and Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto, who founded the local group, a test incineration of 100 tons was carried out at the end of November.

The resulting ash had radiation levels of 38 becquerels per kilogram, prefectural officials said.

But citizens’ groups in Osaka and elsewhere continued their opposition, leading to several arrests.

The most notorious was that of Hannan University professor Masaki Shimoji, one of the most visible leaders in the fight against burning the debris. He was arrested in early December for allegedly trespassing, obstructing business activities and violating an obscure railway services law.

What was newsworthy about Shimoji’s arrest is that it took place nearly two months after his alleged crimes. On Oct. 17, he and several others gathered at JR Osaka Station and began heading to City Hall via the eastern corridor of the station to protest the incineration of Iwate debris.

The arrest warrant stated that Shimoji led an illegal protest march through the station, and that he refused to obey the orders of station personnel. Shimoji denied the allegations, and quickly attracted the support of legal scholars and activists nationwide.

“Shimoji was targeted because he was involved in the campaign to oppose city plans to incinerate imported earthquake debris throughout the nation, including Osaka, where he resides,” said activists Uiko Hasegawa and Park Seung Joon in an international appeal for his release.

Shimoji was freed at the end of December without charges.

Now, with less than a month to go before incineration is slated to start, opponents are mounting what may be a last-ditch campaign to halt the project.

On Thursday, Kinuko Motoshige sent a petition on behalf of 27 citizens’ groups nationwide to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Environment Minister Nobuteru Ishihara and two other officials in the Cabinet, asking them to put pressure on the city of Osaka to block the debris-burning plan.

In addition to citing various environmental reasons, the petition called on the Liberal Democratic Party government to sit down with city officials and discuss the issue in a public debate over the safety of incinerating the debris, and to not burn any of it until the dangers are completely eliminated.

“Some 2,232 letters and petitions calling on the city not to burn the debris have been sent to municipal assembly members. While LDP members have opposed the burning, Osaka Ishin no Kai and New Komeito, which are the ruling parties (in the assembly), have supported it,” Motoshige said.

She also noted the Osaka Prefectural Assembly is not listening to the concerns, and is simply saying the debris is safe to burn.

On Wednesday, prefectural and city officials, and, possibly, officials from the Environment Ministry, will meet with residents in Osaka for what is likely to be the final public meeting before the start of the incineration. Osaka officials, however, continue to claim that November’s test incineration met all environmental regulations and proved the waste could therefore be burned in the same manner as conventional garbage.