FUKUSHIMA – Contractors commissioned by the central government to decontaminate areas tainted by the Fukushima nuclear disaster lack the knowhow or manpower to handle the unprecedented work, one of the workers said.
The worker, a 60-year-old man from Iwaki, Fukushima Prefecture, said: “Theories and experience in the field are different. It’s something no one has experienced before. No one knows how it should be done, exactly.”
On Jan. 7, the Environment Ministry disclosed two cases in which contractors failed to collect water used for decontamination in areas tainted by the meltdown crisis under a central government project. The disclosure came days after the media reported suspected cases of illegal dumping of radioactive waste into rivers and other unauthorized locations.
Although the ministry again told contractors to step up their oversight, they lack the knowhow and manpower to resolve the problem.
The man said he works from 7:30 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. and takes one day off a week. Around 10 men and women, ranging from teenagers to those in their 60s, and with different professional backgrounds, work together. Only a few have civil engineering experience.
Some do not even seem to know the basics, including the need to wear a helmet and protective footwear. Many apparently work around the contaminated areas in regular boots.
Part of the decontamination work entails removing layers of topsoil down to around 5, 7 or even 10 cm deep if the dosimeters they carry fail to give off progressively lower radioactivity readings.
The worker described the process as trial and error.
“Those overseeing us from the contractor company or government offices nag at us to work safely, but they don’t give us any specific instructions,” he said. “They are all laymen who don’t know what poses a danger.”
There is no specific workload to be performed each day and workers are not encouraged to hasten their operations, the man said, adding that many quit after just a week.
The two cases the Environment Ministry disclosed concerned decontamination work undertaken in mid-December — one case in the village of Iitate and the other in the town of Naraha, both in Fukushima Prefecture.
In Naraha, workers used high pressure water hoses to wash off radioactive waste from the balconies of homes, when they were supposed to wipe them down instead, the ministry said, adding the water was not properly removed from the sites.
In Iitate, water used to clean road surfaces was allowed to run off into ditches, it said.
Alarmed by the revelations, Naraha officials visited the homes on Jan. 8 as well as the forest decontamination sites and a temporary storage site for contaminated topsoil removed from various locations.
Hiroshi Aoki, head of the town’s radiation measures division, said: “Decontamination is the first step to allow residents to return home. We really hope the state undertakes work in a credible manner.”
The central government has designated 11 municipalities as “special decontamination areas” where the state is required to take direct charge of removing radioactive materials. These areas cover exclusion or restricted zones where residents were forced to evacuate after the Fukushima disaster started.
The cost of decontamination work in and outside of Fukushima Prefecture has so far totaled around ¥570 billion. Of the sum, roughly ¥120 billion has been spent on those “special” areas.
Decontamination methods are detailed in the guidelines of the Environment Ministry as well as in the manuals of contractors. They require the collection of high-pressure water used for cleaning.
According to Tokyo Electric Power Co., 900,000 terabecquerels of radioactive fallout was discharged into the atmosphere during the triple meltdowns at the plant in March 2011 alone. One terabecquerel is 1 trillion becquerels. It is not known howmuch fell onto the land.
The decontamination effort requires the removal of substances on roads, farmland and areas 20 meters into woodlands where people’s daily activities take place. It does not cover areas where residents are still barred from returning.
But there is no mention of how to decontaminate the other wooded areas that cover 70 percent of Fukushima Prefecture, suggesting the project itself will have extremely limited remedial effect.
Nearly two years into the crisis, a worker in the field said, “If you ask if (the decontamination) can be done thoroughly in all areas, (the answer is) it will be difficult in reality.”
Fukushima Gov. Yuhei Sato has been hospitalized since Sunday due to bleeding colon diverticulum, the prefectural government said Monday.
The 65-year-old governor of the nuclear disaster-hit prefecture is being treated with medicine and will be discharged from the hospital in the city of Fukushima in seven to 10 days.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.