Fukushima's radioactive soil sparks fights, exposes the enormity and hopelessness of clean-up task
Last week’s abject apology by Japanese environment minister Nobuteru Ishihara to Fukushima Prefecture officials underscores how serious the problem of contaminated-soil storage has become in that country.
It is also a good indicator of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's eagerness to get his country’s nuclear-power industry back online after its shutdown following the March 2011 triple-meltdown disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi plant.
As well, it focuses the world’s attention—more than three years after the worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl in 1986—on the unpredictable costs and the vast and possibly insurmountable difficulties associated with cleaning up after such an environmental catastrophe.
Soil would fill how many B.C. Places?
In the months after the 2011 earthquake-and-tsunami catastrophe, environment ministry experts estimated that the amount of radioactive topsoil from parts of four surrounding prefectures that would have to be “decontaminated” and stored could be as high as 29 million cubic metres.
That would be about enough dirt to fill the 59,000-capacity B.C. Place Stadium 23 times.
However, Yuichi Moriguchi, a University of Tokyo environmental-engineering professor, pegged the amount at closer to 100 million cubic metres, enough to fill 80 B.C. Places.
Minister Ishihara had told reporters in Tokyo on June 16 that the dragged-out and often acrimonious soil-storage negotiations between Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party–led administration and local and state governments in Fukushima would be solved once the issue of “monetary value” was settled.
Fukushima residents, evacuees, the governor, and the mayors of Futaba and Okuma—the two towns adjacent to Daiichi that have been tentatively earmarked for storage facilities—were outraged by the comment.
They called it insensitive and said it failed to take into account their dislocation, fears, and sense of helplessness. They said it made them seem to be concerned only with compensation.
Minister underestimated reaction
The environment minister quickly backtracked, saying he was misconstrued, but he refused to retract his statement. After opposition pressure, however, he apologized during a June 19 parliamentary session and retracted his remark.
When opposing parties still called for him to step down, he made the June 23 trip in person to grovel before the mayors and the governor, who graciously accepted his apology.
Nuke watchdog is vetting restarts
The drama unfolds as the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA), the country’s new nuclear watchdog, is reviewing applications from nine companies to restart 19 reactors at 12 nuclear-power plants.
Abe is anxious to reduce his country’s dependence on costly fossil-fuel imports, including liquefied natural gas and thermal coal, that have increased tremendously since the idling of its nuclear plants.
His cabinet last April gave its approval to a new energy policy that supports the expansion of nuclear power despite polls that show the Japanese public is more than three-quarters in favour of phasing it out.
PM interfered with review commission
The prime minister even took the extraordinary and controversial step of appointing a hard-core nuclear-power backer as an NRA commissioner to conduct reviews of start-up plans, replacing a seismologist who has been widely criticized by the nuclear industry for delaying restarts with stringent safety conditions.
The industry had hoped to bring a few nuclear plants online this fall, and more to start up early in 2015, with all of the country’s approximately four dozen reactors to soon follow. (Numbers are not exact because some plants are under construction and others, including those damaged at Daiichi, are to be decommissioned, a process that could take more than several decades.)
Since the central government first announced in 2011 its plans to examine the options for storing contaminated topsoil, vegetation, and debris that resulted from that year’s disastrous multiple meltdown and widespread release of radioactive material, there has been opposition from Fukushima Prefecture officials and residents.
Tempoarary storage sites full, exposed
Many temporary storage sites for contaminated materials have been set up both inside and outside the so-called exclusion zone and evacuated or abandoned areas surrounding Fukushima Daiichi, a tract encompassing more than 2,000 square kilometres.
Most of those sites consist of cleared ground, with or without concrete pads, upon which are placed hundreds or thousands of often exposed bags and containers of radioactive soil and vegetation, sometimes very close to residential areas.
Many of the sites are already at or near capacity.
Costs could be wildly inaccurate
In December 2013, Tokyo announced that it would spend almost $1 billion to store 132,738 tonnes of radioactive soil already removed from near the crippled power plant. No towns came forward to offer to sell the approximately three to five square kilometres of land estimated to be needed to build the supposedly “interim” facility to house the waste, currently stored temporarily in different locations around Japan.
(That plan covers less than 150,000 tons of soil. Greenpeace International has claimed that as of February 2013, more than four million tons of radioactive waste had been produced.)
The $1-billion cost of this plan might be severely underestimated, however. A disposal centre in Rokkasho, Aomori Prefecture, for low-level radioactive waste from the country's nuclear plants (including metal parts and work clothing) cost $2 billion to build.
And it holds only 200,000 cubic metres of material.
The true cost for the planned "interim" facility could be in the tens of billions of dollars—or much higher.
Waste needs to be stored for 30 years
Prefecture officials and residents expressed skepticism about the unclear future location of “permanent” storage sites, noting that the material would have to be stored away for a minimum of 30 years and voicing fears that their towns would become the preferred perpetual spots.
In February this year, though, Fukushima governor Yuhei Sato recommended to the Futaba and Okuma mayors, along with the Environment Ministry, that their towns jointly host storage facilities on 16 square kilometres of land. The parcels south and north of Daiichi would hold 28 million cubic metres of contaminated waste radiating 100,000 becquerels per kilogram.
The very next month, though, citing the federal government’s still vague plans for regional reconstruction and compensation, the governor and mayors refused to allow the feds to even conduct briefing sessions for their residents.
Residents still not satisfied
After the central government promised to create a development-subsidy program and pass a new law to allow for final disposal of the soil elsewhere in Japan within 30 years, the local officials agreed on May 1 to allow the meetings, subject to the approval of the town assemblies, which did just that.
The Asahi Shimbun newspaper reported on June 16 that local residents were still dissatisfied with Tokyo’s lack of details, however, even after numerous briefing sessions. The Environment Ministry, which hopes to begin hauling waste to the new site in January 2015, “is weighing additional options to purchasing private lands”, according to the paper. Many people think the government will just nationalize the land it needs.
Meanwhile, more than 150,000 evacuated residents are unable to return to their homes and lands. Most parts of Futaba and Okuma, as well as other hamlets, are declared to be “difficult-to-return zones”, with annual radiation doses exceeding 50 millisieverts. It is expected the earliest that some of the 7,000 inhabitants of Futaba, for example, will be allowed to return home will be 2017.
Hopelessness of task evident
Because of the very public nature of this storage dispute, people throughout the country and the world, not just those who have not slept in their own beds for more than three years, are now starting to realize the magnitude, and relative hopelessness, of the cleanup effort.
Professor Moriguchi’s estimate of 100 million cubic metres of radioactive soil needing to be stripped from the ground surrounding Fukushima Daiichi was based on an area of 2,000 square kilometres, including the 1,100 square kilometres of no-entry and evacuation zones. This is the equivalent of about one-seventh of the entire Fukushima Prefecture.
But there are many areas outside this district that are contaminated as well, to varying degrees, including isolated “hot spots”. Some of these were found in Tokyo, more than 200 kilometres away from Daiichi. On the other hand, that original clean-up area consists of up to 70 percent woodlands, hills, and mountains, much of which (if not most) will probably never be touched by decontamination efforts.
Some areas may be deserted forever
And if more than five centimetres of topsoil needs to be scraped off to remove radioactive cesium, after years of rain and groundwater movement, the volume of material needing to be stored will rise accordingly. Prof. Tomoko M. Nakanishi, from the University of Tokyo's graduate school of agriculture, conducted soil research in Fukushima post-disaster and had this to say about how readily radioactive cesium was absorbed by the soil: "It was like pollen with superglue."
Friends of the Earth, an international network of environmental groups, reported in 2012 that a test soil-decontamination program for only three houses in Fukushima generated 35 tons of soil waste.
In the end, it will probably be areas around parks, residences, schools, hospitals, and other public buildings that will see the most attention from decontamination efforts.
Some parts of the surrounding prefectures may never see a return to levels of human activity to compare with pre-Fukushima. And some areas may remain deserted forever.
Oh, yeah, then there's the ocean
This is without even mentioning the incalculable amount of radioactive groundwater and cooling water that has flowed into the Pacific Ocean nonstop since the first day of the disaster almost three-and-a-half years ago. Woods Hole Oceanographic Society scientists labelled this "the largest accidental release of radiation to the ocean in history".
According to Greenpeace International, one month after the meltdowns, cesium-137 levels in the sea near Daiichi were 50 million times higher than pre-disaster measurements. (Cesium-137 has a half-life of 30 years; cesium-134's is a bit more than two years.)
And Asahi—using data provided by Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO), the Daiichi plant operator—says that 462TBq (a terabecquerel equals one trillion Becquerels) of radioactive strontium have been dumped into the Pacific. Strontium is potentially far more dangerous to human life than either cesium-134 or cesium-137.
There have been conflicting reports about the amounts of even deadlier plutonium that might have been released into the soil, air, or water.
Back in North America...
And officials in North America have been assuring people for three years that they have nothing to fear from the enormous radioactive plume of seawater that has just in recent months really started to wash down the west coast of Canada and the United States. This after incomplete, sometimes farcical, random sampling of limited species of fish and seaweeds with often undisclosed methadology and incomplete released results.
Not to mention the runaround and obfuscation that British Columbia health officials gave journalists seeking information on infant mortality, birth defects, and hypothyroidism post-Fukushima.
So, anyone heard any good news lately?