Not much progress has been made in transporting debris in Miyagi and Iwate prefectures created by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami to other prefectures for disposal because local governments and residents outside the disaster-hit areas fear the debris could be contaminated with radioactive substances from the fiasco at Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant. The debris amounts to 11 times and 19 times the normal annual amount in Iwate Prefecture and in Miyagi Prefecture, respectively. Although the central government has a plan to dispose of such debris within three years, it will be difficult to achieve this goal if the current situation continues.

The Environment Ministry says that the concentration of radioactive substances in ash from the incinerated debris from Iwate and Miyagi prefectures will very likely be much lower than the government-set level of 8,000 becquerels per kg. Waste at or below this level can be buried in ordinary landfill sites.

But the burden has been placed on local governments that agree to receive debris from disaster-hit areas to determine if it is contaminated with radioactive substances. If the contamination level is high, they then must decide whether it would endanger public safety. Getting consent from local residents to bury contaminated waste would also be difficult.

An April survey showed that 572 municipalities and municipal associations in Tokyo and 41 prefectures were ready to accept debris from disaster-hit areas. But the number fell to 54 such bodies in an October survey, probably due to local residents’ fear that such debris would be contaminated with radioactive substances.

Under the initiative of Gov. Shintaro Ishihara, however, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government this month began transporting disaster waste from Miyako, Iwate Prefecture, by railway to Tokyo. It will also accept debris from Onagawa, Miyagi Prefecture, next year. It will bury non-burnable debris and ash from incinerated debris in landfill sites in Tokyo. It plans to dispose of 500,000 tons of debris from Iwate and Miyagi prefectures by the end of fiscal 2013.

The metropolitan government has received many protest telephone calls and e-mails from Tokyo residents. The fact that a Tepco subsidiary will do the incineration work may also invite criticism.

The metropolitan government should take the sentiment of Tokyo residents into account, make public the levels of radiation contamination of debris and prove that the debris is safe. Without doing so it will be difficult to gain the acceptance of Tokyo residents. Equally important, the central government should consider building landfill and incineration facilities in disaster-hit areas, where such a move would generate jobs and other economic benefits.

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