Four Years Later, Nowhere To Store Contaminated Soil

Thousands of bags of radioactive waste on beach

Four years after the March 11, 2011 Tohoku Disaster, the central government operations to clean up evacuated areas badly contaminated by the disaster at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant finally got under way in late 2012.

However, much of the contaminated soil and other radioactive waste generated by the operation has nowhere to go, with no clear idea of where or when midterm storage sites will be built and with many municipalities still lacking even temporary storage facilities. Meanwhile, it remains to be seen how effective the decontamination -- which must be completed before residents can return home -- will actually be.

Some of the contamination is stored  in plastic bags and placed on the beaches of Fukushima and Iwate prefectures.

"We must remember to hurry, people are losing patience." said a representative of the joint-venture firm tasked with the decontamination operation in Tamura yesterday.

Eleven municipalities previously covered in whole or in part by the evacuation zones around the nuclear plant have been re-designated "special decontamination areas" to be cleaned up by the central government. In Tamura, the operation covers homes, fields and local forests over some 480 hectares in the east of the city that were relabeled "resident return preparation area".

Just cutting and clearing away the grass in a cemetery here dropped the airborne radiation dose from 1.5 microsieverts per hour to 0.9. While significant, however, this is not enough. Abiding by a request from Fukushima Prefecture, the central government included a radiation target of 1 millisievert or less per year -- equivalent to an hourly dosage of 0.23 microsieverts -- in its Fukushima recovery plan (excluding natural background radiation).

"For a fairly extensive area, we should decide on a uniform depth for top soil removal and other steps to get good results as the operation moves forward," the joint venture project head said.

The Tamura city official overseeing the project, however, said, "There has to be some technique for not wasting soil that doesn't need to be. If they scrape off soil the same way everywhere, there will be just a huge amount of waste produced."

In this special decontamination zone, called the Miyakoji zone, there are four temporary waste disposal sites. Meanwhile, it appears that the city wants to avoid trying to get resident approval for more, which would be a seriously uphill struggle.

At first, national forests were considered for temporary waste sites. The idea was scrapped, however, when it became clear the roads that would need to be built through the woods would be too costly in time and money. In the end, the city established the four temporary sites on private land along a local river on the understanding that the waste would be moved to a midterm storage facility within three years. The Ministry of the Environment, meanwhile, wants to finish the decontamination operation in Tamura by the end of this fiscal year, despite persistent worries over the dearth of temporary disposal sites.

While Tamura and four other municipalities -- the towns of Kawamata and Naraha, and the villages of Kawauchi and Katsurao -- have at least found someplace to tentatively store the cleanup waste, another five are still negotiating with their residents over disposal sites.

One major factor in the inability to secure temporary waste sites is the fact that there are as yet no solid plans to build any midterm disposal facilities, making many residents worried that the government won't be able to keep its promise to move the waste out of temporary sites after three years. The central government is now in talks with the towns of Futaba, Okuma and Naraha -- the former two hosts to the stricken Fukushima No. 1 plant -- to open midterm storage facilities within their boundaries, though progress is very difficult due to the municipalities' fears that "midterm" will become "permanent" once the facilities are built.

"Residents tell us to hurry up with the decontamination, but they're opposed to temporary and midterm waste disposal sites," lamented one frustrated senior environment ministry official.  "Unless we have storage capability then our hands are tied."
 
Dallas Brincrest and Charles Gannon 

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