Is it safe? Japan's radiation clean-up raises questions
By Takehiko Kambayashi Feb 28, 2012, 2:05 GMT
Fukushima, Japan - Construction and landscapers working in a bucolic mountainous area of north-eastern Japan shovelled up and bagged radioactive contaminants released from the nation's worst nuclear accident.
They removed contaminated surface soil from residents' properties in Fukushima, a city 55 kilometres north-west of the source of the radioactivity, the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station.
After their work, radiation readings dropped from 1.5 to 0.2 microsieverts an hour, compared with a pre-disaster background level of 0.04.
'City officials have instructed us to remove contaminated topsoil until radiation readings fall below 1 microsievert an hour,' one worker said.
Clean-up workers are dealing every day with a large quantity of material with high levels of radioactive contamination, but they wear normal gloves, masks and work uniforms instead of protective gear.
Critics said government officials, employers and workers underestimate the risks involved in the clean-up started in late September, six months after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami triggered the nuclear crisis at the Fukushima plant.
A series of fires and blasts at the plant led to the release of radioactive substances. The facility suffered meltdowns at three of its six reactors.
'I'm not worried about them so much,' one worker in his 20s said about the possible effects of his exposure to radiation.
The man who works for the local Shunko-en landscaping firm said he knows there are some risks. 'But somebody has to do this,' he said.
Kazuo Morito, president of the firm, said he is careful to minimize his workers' exposure to dangerous levels of radiation.
'We believe taking care of our workers' health is important, and we are working closely with city officials,' Morito said.
The central government has set guidelines for the clean-up, but it is employers who have ultimate responsibility for the health of their staff, city officials said.
Hiroaki Koide, assistant professor at the Kyoto University Research Reactor Institute, said there is no safe dose of radiation.
Koide said it is impossible to thoroughly decontaminate land, and the government-led operation is just moving radioactive material from one place to another.
'However, in order to protect children, it is necessary to decontaminate areas where they are around, for instance, by removing the topsoil of school playgrounds,' he said.
The central government has also started to focus more on clean-ups in areas around the plant, including the no-go zone within a 20-kilometre radius of the facility. Tokyo wants the zone's more than 80,000 evacuated residents to return to their homes soon.
The government reportedly plans to spend more than 1 trillion yen (12.3 billion dollars) on the clean-up projects, which were expected to last until March 2014.
The operation within the no-go zone was supposed to start in January, but snowfall prevented any progress, Environment Ministry officials said.
Critics pointed out that the government awarded the first decontamination contracts to major construction companies that had benefited from building nuclear power plants.
The clean-up also requires the government to find sites to store radiation-contaminated soil and other nuclear waste, but Tokyo has already had difficulty in doing so.
Fukushima has been temporarily keeping such waste at an undisclosed location in its mountains, but the total amount is set to end up being much more than the government expected, city officials said.
Tokyo needs to find or build storage for 90 million cubic metres of radioactive waste, equivalent to 72 domed baseball stadiums, Deputy Environment Minister Hideki Minamikawa was quoted as saying in late September by the local newspaper Fukushima Minpo.
Residents said they were concerned that, even after the clean-up, radioactive substances would easily come down from the mountains that surround the region's cities and towns and recontaminate their land.
Despite such concerns, Prime Minster Yoshihiko Noda declared in December that the Fukushima plant had been brought to a 'cold shutdown,' which means no nuclear reactions were taking place and little radiation was leaking into the environment.
Many Fukushima residents expressed frustration with Noda's declaration as high levels of radiation were still detected in many parts of the city.
'What was he talking about?' asked one resident in the city's Onami district. The clean-up 'has just started. The disaster is far from over.'
Read more about Japan Disasters