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Tuesday, Oct. 25, 2011

Decontamination experts outline the basics

Radiation mitigation requires transparency, close community involvement, foreign experts explain

Staff writer

FUKUSHIMA — Radiation decontamination at the community level requires the input and participation of the citizenry, close communication with authorities, and a clear understanding of safety, nuclear experts said at a recent symposium in Fukushima.

News photo
Expert opinion: Yasuo Onishi, chief scientist at the U.S.-based Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (center), speaks at a panel discussion with Nataliya Shandala, senior official of the Federal Medical and Biophysical Center in Russia (left), and Tarja Ikaheimonen, director of the Radiation and Nuclear Safety Authority in Finland, at a symposium on decontamination in the city of Fukushima on Oct. 16. KAZUAKI NAGATA PHOTOS

When dealing with decontamination, "it's absolutely necessary to involve stakeholders," Ann McGarry, chair of the Committee on Radiation Protection and Public Health, part of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, told the Oct. 16 symposium.

Nuclear experts from overseas and members of the Japanese decontamination team shared their experiences with decontamination at the government-sponsored symposium, which was held to find ways to improve the cleanup process for areas tainted by fallout from the crippled Fukushima No. 1 power plant.

"Radiation protection is a science, but it's a science that takes place in a society. It incorporates individuals, so it means that there is more than just science that needs to be taken into account when making decisions that affect people, and we do that by stakeholder involvement," McGarry said.

With public distrust in government growing from its opaque handling of the crisis, officials are facing stronger pressure to maintain clear lines of communication with the affected communities. This challenge is growing more acute because the government has yet to find even temporary storage sites, let alone permanent ones, for the contaminated waste in Fukushima, due to strong public and local government opposition.

Environment Minister Goshi Hosono, who attended the symposium, stressed that ultimate responsibility for the cleanup lies with the government, which wants to decontaminate all affected areas until exposure is reduced to below 1 millisievert per year.

"Decontamination is the biggest challenge for Fukushima's reconstruction," said Hosono.

The ministry plans to spend more than ¥1 trillion on the cleanup over three years, but the government is committed to spending more and devoting more human resources, if that is what it takes, Hosono said.

He also said cooperation from overseas is essential and that the government must solicit support from the international community, noting that the symposium itself was a chance to receive such advice.

Yasuo Onishi, chief scientist at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, part of the U.S. Department of Energy, said it is important to get residents involved with the decision-making process from the start.

Citing the New Mexico Pilot Plant, a nuclear waste site, he said local residents participated in the process from the beginning and agreed to build the site there.

McGarry also talked about the fire at the Rocky Flats Plant near Denver in 1969, in which a blaze at the plutonium weapons manufacturing site contaminated surrounding areas with plutonium. The government then tried to set a safety standard for soil contamination in 1996, but triggered protests from the public, she said.

Thus, "the government decided to work directly with local residents," she said.

By launching the Radionuclide Soil Action Levels Oversight Panel the same year, which was an independent group with local involvement, they successfully managed to come up with a safety standards agreement, she said.

The experts also shared their experience and advice on decontamination.

Onishi, who has been involved with environmental assessments of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear accident, said it will be effective and useful to draft maps, record contamination levels and explain the process of decontamination so the data can serve as decontamination road maps and allow people to conduct strategic cleanups.

Onishi said such tools will be useful for residents living in contaminated areas.

"People can easily check and understand what's going on in their areas. It will also help them participate in the decontamination work," he said.

Nataliya Shandala from the Federal Medical and Biophysical Center in Russia said that Chernobyl's decontamination process grew to an area with a 30-km radius around the plant within a month of the meltdown, and that radiation levels fell by 10 percent on average after three years.

News photo
Environment minister Goshi Hosono addresses attendees at the beginning of the symposium.

Tarja Ikaheimonen, director of the Radiation and Nuclear Safety Authority, touched on Finland's experience with land tainted by Chernobyl's fallout by displaying her findings on food contamination.

Among her findings was that the concentration of radioactive material in crops is highest in the first year, but can be reduced drastically the following year by plowing fields and using fertilizer.

As for what to do about the massive amount of radioactive waste being generated, Ikaheimonen said it is possible to decrease it by using soil with low contamination levels.

In Finland, soil with less than 50,000 becquerels per kilogram can be used for construction on condition it is covered by pure soil or other materials.

But Jean-Luc Lachaume of the French Nuclear Safety Authority said that while it is true the waste will be a huge problem, it is forbidden to use or reuse contaminated soil in France.

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