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Fukushima scrub-down aims to make villages safe, although woods may remain no-go zones

by

AFP-JIJI

Sweating inside their plastic protection suits, thousands of men toil in Japan’s muggy early summer in a vast effort to scrub radiation from the villages around Fukushima.

The mission is to decontaminate hundreds of square kilometers that were polluted when reactors went into meltdown after huge tsunami struck the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant in March 2011.

No stone is left unturned: Diggers scrape away the top layer of earth in fields, school courtyards and around the buildings of villages, while houses, buildings, roads and parking lots are scrubbed clean.

At least 20,000 people are involved in the cleanup, according to the Environment Ministry. The workers wear the special gloves, masks and boots required for workers in the nuclear industry.

There are currently around 2.5 million black bags filled with contaminated soil, plants and leaves piled up at the sites or in one of the nearly 800 temporary outdoor storage facilities set up across the disaster zone.

The effort comes as the central government prepares to declare sections of the evacuation zone habitable again.

That will mean evacuees can return to the homes they abandoned more than four years ago. It will also mean, say campaigners, that some people will have no choice but to go back because it will trigger the end of some compensation payments.

Government-run decontamination efforts are underway in 11 cities where Tokyo says that at present, anyone living there would be exposed to radiation levels of more than 20 millisieverts (mSv) a year.

The globally accepted norm for radiation absorption is 1 mSv per year, although the International Atomic Energy Agency and others say anything up to 20 mSv per year poses no immediate danger to human health.

The town of Naraha, which lies just 20 km from the plant, is expected to be declared safe in September.

The government intends to lift many evacuation orders by March 2017, if decontamination progresses as it hopes.

Still, the area immediately surrounding the plant remains uninhabitable, and storage sites meant to last 30 years are being built in the villages closest to the complex.

For now, only residential areas are being cleaned in the short-term, and the worst-hit parts of the countryside are being omitted, as recommended by the IAEA.

But that strategy has troubled environmentalists, who fear that could lead to re-contamination as woodlands will act as radiation reservoirs, with pollutants washed out by rain.

In a report on decontamination in Iitate, a heavily forested area northwest of the plant, the environmental group Greenpeace says these selective efforts will effectively confine returnees to a relatively small area of their old hometowns.

“The Japanese government plans, if implemented, will create an open-air prison of confinement to ‘cleaned’ houses and roads … and the vast untouched radioactive forests continue to pose a significant risk of recontamination of these ‘decontaminated’ areas to even higher levels,” declares the report, published Tuesday.

Some 39 other municipalities that were not evacuated after the meltdowns, and which have radiation levels deemed safe for humans, are also being decontaminated by local authorities.

  • Starviking

    But that strategy has troubled environmentalists, who fear that could lead to re-contamination as woodlands will act as radiation reservoirs, with pollutants washed out by rain.

    Washed out? If the isotopes are washed out, they will follow watercourses, which can be checked and decontaminated – if necessary. Much of the isotopes, being heavy, fall into the silt at the bottom of rivers and bodies of water, and so are not an immediate threat to human health.

    Of course, with the isotopes being concentrated and immobilised in the silt, that’s where organisations like Greenpeace go, with their photogenic masks and suits, to get the highest readings they can – so as to frighten people.

    In a report on decontamination in Iitate, a heavily forested area northwest of the plant, the environmental group Greenpeace says these selective efforts will effectively confine returnees to a relatively small area of their old hometowns.

    Most people are confined to the areas around their homes. Forests are not the place for little strolls in Japan.

    • Ralph Feltens

      “Washed out? If the isotopes are washed out, they will follow
      watercourses, which can be checked and decontaminated – if necessary.”

      How interesting. So it is possible to effectively remove radioactive isotopes from aquifers and whole rivers. How did I miss these fabulous feats?

      “Much of the isotopes, being heavy, fall into the silt at the bottom of
      rivers and bodies of water, and so are not an immediate threat to human
      health.”

      Could it be that someone has problems with telling the difference between heavy metals (with respect to atomic weight) and heavy particles (having a high density)? Do you think that solubilized heavy metal ions (in water) will sink to the bottom of the solution?

      • Starviking

        Well Ralph, you may have more knowledge on remobilization of radioisotopes than me, but my points are made on my observations as a Tohoku resident:

        1) Radioisotopes were concentrated by water drainage systems. The isotopes, largly Caesium ones, were washed down the drains, with a certain percentage remaining in the drain area.

        2) Caesium isotopes being concentrated at the bottoms of dams, with the water above being safe to drink.

        3) Caesium isotopes being concentrated in the silt off the coast of the Dai-ichi plant, as reported by Dr Jay Cullen, but with the sea being safe to swim in, as stated by Dr Ken Buessler.

      • Ralph Feltens

        I must admit that I have no special knoledge on radioisotopes, but as a chemist by training and with your infos about the observed accumulation of Cs-Isotopes I have to assume that the nature of the contaminant(s) is actually particular (in the sence of ‘particle-based’).

        However, in this case I am wondering how it is possible for these fallout-particles that have settled on the surface of land-covered areas to be washed into the streams and not simply into the upper layers of the soil …

      • Peter Weigl

        Ralph,
        the explanation is not that difficult: Cs is water soluble and is thus flushed out by way of water running downstream.

        Cs also adheres to soil, whereby the soil structure (FES factor = frayed edge site) determines the adhesion factor. This adherence hinders absorption by plants (partially, again depending on soil differences and availability of other minerals like phosphate to the plant).

        With water erosion after heavy downpours, soil particles, with adhering Cs, are washed downstream with ‘positive’ effects for two groups:
        1. The population living there, because the radioactive silt will concentrate where silt always does and can thus be removed: Good!
        2. For Greenpeace and other fear mongers: they can thus easily find spots with high radiation and do their dirty propaganda work. Shame!

        And by the way: arsenic concentrations in rice have and will be the problem, not radioactivity.

      • Starviking

        Hi Ralph, sorry for the delay in replying. My understanding is that too: isotopes adsorbed on the surface of atmospheric particulates. It is, however, hard to find a good site or paper that focuses on the form of the radioisotopic contamination, and their generation processes.

        As for the resting-places and localisation of the radioisotopes: Japan does have extensive drainage systems to handle downpours from typhoons – so more might find its way into the drains than might be thought.

        Actual soil contamination seems to be handled by the removal of the top layer of soil. That of buildings and impermeable layers by high-pressure hosing.

  • Liars N. Fools

    So the government is essentially practicing the washing of dirt. This is pretty ludicrous, but the Abe government seems intent on declaring the villages safe so that the government can stop paying for accommodating the refugees from the nuclear disaster.

  • Liars N. Fools

    So the government is essentially practicing the washing of dirt. This is pretty ludicrous, but the Abe government seems intent on declaring the villages safe so that the government can stop paying for accommodating the refugees from the nuclear disaster.

  • Tony Alderman

    These efforts are laughable. Must be a special kind of Japanese radiation; you know, like the special Japanese soil.