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Exposing IAEA to a dose of reality

by Andrew Dewit and Christopher Hobson

Special To The Japan Times

On Oct. 21 the International Atomic Energy Agency’s Expert Remediation Mission to Japan submitted their preliminary findings based on their visit to Tokyo and Fukushima over the previous seven days.

Remediation is a very important area of the IAEA’s work, and “aims to reduce the radiation exposure from contamination of land areas or other contaminated media, such as surface — or groundwater.” In line with this role, the IAEA were requested to inspect Japan’s decontamination efforts after the Fukushima No. 1 disaster. This is in fact their second visit, a followup to an October 2011 mission.

Reading the IAEA’s findings, and contrasting them with the reality in Fukushima, one is left wondering whether the IAEA mission got lost in a Potemkin village during their trip.

The interim report consists of little more than cheerleading, highlighting 13 areas of “important progress,” while providing eight points of very softball advice.

The IAEA’s main finding, for example, is that Japan has “achieved good progress in the remediation activities and … good progress in the coordination of remediation activities with reconstruction and revitalization efforts.”

Team leader Juan Carlos Lentijo, director of the IAEA’s Division of Fuel Cycle and Waste Technology, also breathlessly related that “The Mission Team has been really impressed by the involvement of a wide range of ministries, agencies and local authorities in driving these crucial remediation efforts.”

The IAEA would seem to have no eyes for noticing “poor progress” and no vocabulary for expressing it, but they would have done Japan, the nuclear industry and the world a great favor by being more forthright. A final report on the mission will be submitted to the Japanese government in December, so they still have the chance to amend their recommendations and incorporate some of the difficult realities they have sidestepped to date.

One of the “highlights” identified by the IAEA team was Japan’s “enormous efforts to implement the remediation program in order to reduce exposures to people in the affected areas, to enable, stimulate and support the return of people evacuated after the accident, and to support the affected municipalities in overcoming economic and social disruptions.”

Yet making “efforts” seems far too ambiguous and subjective a standard for judging the program. Surely a better, more objective measure would be the number of people able to return to their homes with some reasonable sense of assurance that they can live there safely.

Indeed, on the same day that the IAEA submitted its preliminary findings to Shinji Inoue, senior vice minister of the environment, the Environment Ministry announced that decontamination efforts in six of the 11 municipalities in the exclusion zone around Fukushima No. 1 are considerably behind schedule and will need to be significantly revised.

That means more than 90,000 people will thus be unable to return to their homes in the exclusion zone for another three years, a reality that differs starkly from the positive account presented by the IAEA. And contrary to the IAEA’s lauding of inter-agency cooperation, a large part of the problem is poor communication and deep distrust between the Environment Ministry and the region’s municipal governments.

To date, decontamination attempts have been plagued by problems and setbacks. One of the biggest impediments has been determining what to do with the contaminated soil and debris, which in many cases has been left in temporary storage. This has been identified as an important factor in the Environment Ministry failing to use 76.6 percent of its budget for decontamination, according to the Board of Audit.

Of the money that has been spent, much has been wasted on shoddy work undertaken by contractors, as has been detailed by the Asahi Shimbun in its “Crooked Cleanup” investigation. Yet such problems are simply ignored in the IAEA’s report. The remit of the mission was specifically limited to contaminated areas surrounding Fukushima No. 1, and not the plant itself, nor the massive movement of groundwater in and out of it.

The result is a rather surreal situation where the IAEA can praise Japan for its handling of the decontamination process, while overlooking the endless stream of problems at the stricken nuclear plant. In the advice it offers the Japanese government, the IAEA emphasizes the importance of improving communication “in order to achieve a more realistic perception of radiation and related risks among the population” and to “reduce some uncertainties and provide greater confidence in the decisions being made.”

Surely the government getting a grip on the situation at Fukushima No. 1 is essential to accomplishing this. After all, the public’s worries about radiation are stoked by Fukushima No. 1′s inventory of accidents, mistakes and leaks of contaminated water, combined with Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s gross mismanagement and the government’s limited attempts at oversight.

Another important part of that reality is the truly deplorable working conditions of the several thousand workers at the site. Recent articles on this issue have highlighted workers’ serious depression and anxiety, high levels of radiation exposure, alcohol abuse, low pay and a variety of other factors that are exacerbating the many other problems at the plant.

While the workers engaged in cleanup “efforts” around the site itself may not have to endure the full slate of dangers and deprivations faced by those at ground zero, they have an ample share of difficulties to contend with, such as the involvement of organized crime and questionable workplace practices.

These matters all impede remediation, but are completely absent from the IAEA’s account.

Rather than undue cheerleading, the IAEA ought to aim a few recommendations at remedying the poor governance and blatant mismanagement that has come to define the response by the Japanese government and Tepco to the nuclear accident. It is in no one’s interest, least of all the global nuclear industry’s, to pretend that all is well when it so manifestly is not.

Andrew DeWit is a professor in the School of Policy Studies, Rikkyo University. Christopher Hobson is an assistant professor in the School of Political Science and Economics, Waseda University.

  • Starviking

    “The result is a rather surreal situation where the IAEA can praise Japan for its handling of the decontamination process, while overlooking the endless stream of problems at the stricken nuclear plant.”

    Not surreal at all. In fact, if there is surreality on show then it is in the main thesis of this article: don’t do the job you were sent to do, do something else which suits my agenda.

    No one in their right mind would ask a judge to suddenly give a ruling on a case they were not working on. Neither would it be sensible to ask a police officer from a different jurisdiction to arrest someone in another jurisdiction. The same holds for this IAEA team: they were tasked with reviewing remediation efforts in the zones around the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant – not investigate the plant itself.

    “Team leader Juan Carlos Lentijo … breathlessly related …”

    Can the authors provide evidence that the team leader was breathless? Or is this just an attempt to bias the readers against said team leader?

    “Surely the government getting a grip on the situation at Fukushima No. 1 is essential to accomplishing this. After all, the public’s worries about radiation are stoked by Fukushima No. 1′s inventory of accidents, mistakes and leaks of contaminated water, combined with Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s gross mismanagement and the government’s limited attempts at oversight.”

    Let me hazard a guess at what a sensible response to the Fukushima Plant issue would be by a forthright IAEA expert:

    The situation in Japanese society where errors, no matter how inconsequential are not tollerated does not help the situation at Fukushima Dai-ichi. The situation where authorities are obliged to back off from assuming more control for fear of becoming ‘responsible’ for the problems of the plant does not help the situation at Fukushima Dai-ichi. Neither does the regulators apparent inability to give technical briefings to TEPCO. The fact that inconsequential radioisotope releases and purification plant stoppages are being touted as major problems does not help the situation at Fukushima Dai-ichi. Nor does the fact that Japanese society will not allow any intentional releases of water from the plant, no matter what the level of contamination. It also does not help that the work at the plant is being essentially run by the media: the unloading of Spent Fuel Pool 4 is being undertaken a year ahead of schedule due to media hype – whilst at the same time the media is demanding not only an end to leaks – but an end to any error of any kind at Fukushima Dai-ichi. Anyone who has any kind of technical experience will recognise that this is fallacious thinking, and does not help matters one whit.

  • Sam Gilman

    Hello Andrew and Christopher – I hope you are going to participate in this discussion as you have done previously.

    Given that neither of you (like me) are technically qualified to comment on how a clean-up at a stricken nuclear plant is supposed to proceed, could you be a little clearer on the sources you are using as a yardstick? Which experts are you basing your assessment on?

    For example, you identify the issue of contaminated water as something which reasonably stokes the fears of the public about radiation. The thing is, all the qualified experts I have read have been clear that these leaks do not represent any kind of threat to public health (so that actually, the issue of better communication about radiation and health is a perfectly decent one for the IAEA to raise). What are your sources for saying that these leaks are a risk to the public?

    I’m sure you’ll agree, there are far too many media people without degrees in science holding forth on the technical and scientific aspects of Fukushima as if just living in Japan makes them an expert. That’s why sourcing is really so important.

    I look forward to your reply.