The potentially lucrative business of decontaminating areas of radioactive substances released from Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power station may well go to companies handpicked by a government organization that has long played a leading role in promoting the construction of nuclear plants with the electric power industry.

If this becomes a reality, it is feared that much of the cleanup work will be undertaken by amateurs who have only gone through the “Decontamination 101” seminars certifying completion of rudimentary training to do the job.

Procedures for decontamination work, which has been necessitated by the disastrous accidents at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, are provided for in a special law enacted in August.

The government body rumored likely to be given the monopolistic power of deciding who will be awarded decontamination contracts under this law is the Japan Atomic Energy Agency (JAEA).

Professor Tatsuhiko Kodama, head of the University of Tokyo’s Radioisotope Center, has expressed anger over Article 56 of the law, which was enacted by the Democratic Party of Japan, the Liberal Democratic Party and Komeito without deliberations in the Diet. The article, suddenly inserted into the law just before voting, requires the environment minister to seek the opinions of the Nuclear Safety Commission (NSC) before issuing or revising related ordinances of the environment ministry.

The problem with this provision is that the NSC is staffed by only four experts in nuclear reactors and one in health hazards, while nobody is well-versed in measuring radiation levels and decontamination.

A researcher who has closely followed how this law was enacted suspects that the article in question represents a “counteroffensive” from pro-nuclear bureaucrats toward the government’s new policy of reducing Japan’s reliance on nuclear energy. He points out that the article is aimed at empowering the NSC to draw up standards for decontamination so that the actual cleanup work can be arbitrarily concentrated in the hands of the JAEA as the two are closely interrelated to each other.

The agency, which came into being in 2005 through the merger of the Power Reactor and Nuclear Fuel Development Corporation (PNA) and the Japan Atomic Energy Research Institute (AERI), has long collaborated closely with the electric power industry for promoting the construction of nuclear power-generating stations in Japan.

More than a few people feel that it is not right for the organization, which has long worked for expansion of the nuclear power plant network, to be given the principal task of cleaning up the contaminated areas, let alone on an almost exclusive basis.

“Undertaking decontamination work is not included in the JAEA’s mission and is not part of its capabilities,” professor Kodama asserts. “There are companies in the private sector that have the technology and the experience. Why does the JAEA have to do the job?”

The total cost of decontaminating all areas contaminated by radioactive substances from the Fukushima power plant is estimated to range from dozens of trillions of yen to ¥100 trillion. Goshi Hosono, the environment minister and minister in charge of nuclear accident settlement and prevention, has publicly stated the government would complete the job regardless of how much it costs.

On Sept. 30, the JAEA was entrusted with a ¥10 billion model decontamination project. It will assign the real work to companies with “certificates.” Since the real cost is estimated to be about ¥7.2 billion, some people criticized the JAEA’s getting a margin of some ¥3 billion. Full-scale contamination will be much more costly and money for individual decontamination work will come through the JAEA.

The agency has been active in holding seminars for those seeking to be awarded certificates and, eventually, contracts. The problem is that most of the participants are from construction and civil engineering companies equipped with heavy earth-moving machinery and high-pressure water hoses; they are mere amateurs when it comes to anything related to radioactivity.

Besides, each of these certificate seminars lasts only two days. On the first day, participants are taught such fundamentals as “an outline of the accident at the nuclear plant,” “the basics about radiation” and “how to handle radiation safely.” Only on the second day are they taught methods of decontamination. The textbook is only 12 pages.

Even this portion of the seminar goes only as far as where and how to store contaminated materials that have been collected. It fails to touch on the more fundamental issue of how to ultimately dispose of them.

Some JAEA officials have admitted lacking answers with regard to the final stage of decontamination because no concrete policies have been established.

After the two-day lectures, participants in the seminars are led to the field study of measuring radiation levels on grass surfaces and mountain sides. If they pass the subsequent written examinations, they are given the “certificate” qualifying them to undertake decontamination work.

With so many amateurs certified as “experts,” a number of unsatisfactory results have already been uncovered. Professor Tomoya Yamauchi at the Graduate School of Maritime Sciences at Kobe University, reports that a decontamination project undertaken by the JAEA for streets used by elementary school children in Fukushima City resulted in a reduction of radiation levels by only 32 percent.

Decontamination is such a technologically complicated process in the first place that there are many diversified and mutually conflicting views among scientists and experts as to how it should be approached. This makes it all the more important to seek a decontamination method that maximizes the effect and minimizes the cost through public debates.

If a blank check on decontamination procedures is given to the JAEA, which in the past had collaborated closely with the government and the electric power industry in promoting nuclear power generation, the whole cleanup processes will most likely be done in a haphazard manner.

Absent any decision on the final disposal of radioactive materials, such a haphazard process could indeed result in the further spread of radioactive materials.

A resident in a contaminated area lamented: “We are forced to take a backseat in the decontamination process. Benefits go only to the JAEA and companies with close ties with that organization.”

It is tragic indeed that decontamination work appears to be going along this line.

This is an abridged translation of an article from the November issue of Sentaku, a monthly magazine covering Japanese political, social and economic scenes.

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