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Friday, July 27, 2012

Soil issue buried for lack of storage


More than 15 months after the Fukushima disaster started, municipalities hit by the fallout are struggling to dispose of radioactive soil collected under decontamination efforts.

News photo
Nowhere to go: Batches of radioactive soil sit under tarps at a temporary storage site in Minamisoma, Fukushima Prefecture, on June 24. KYODO

Prime Minister Yoshiyuki Noda vowed upon taking office last September to lead the nuclear decontamination effort, but that has proven to be an empty promise, say officials in the Tohoku region and parts of Kanto, including metropolitan Tokyo.

Unaided, local efforts have progressed little because residential opposition and the central government's fickle and evasive policies are making it difficult to set up storage sites, municipal authorities said.

The city of Minamisoma, Fukushima Prefecture, for example, told residents in the July 1 issue of its city magazine that the decontamination plan is being re-examined because it can't find a site to store the tainted soil.

This implied that the March 2014 completion date for decontamination is going to be missed.

At a hamlet in a mountainous area where decontamination was attempted last autumn, airborne radiation was recently found to have returned to 2 microsieverts per hour, the same as it was beforehand and too high for human habitation, local officials said.

"I imagine it's cesium dust coming from the hill behind the village," a local chief lamented. "All we can do is decontaminate the area again, but there is nowhere to store the soil."

Minamisoma, one of the municipalities most affected by the nuclear crisis, is among 111 municipalities in eight prefectures designated in January by the central government as a "priority area" for decontamination.

Anticipating a storage space shortage, the central government has been advocating the "upside-down" method of storage — which actually means burying the tainted topsoil below that excavated from further down, instead of collecting it for storage.

This method has been strongly criticized, especially by those who were forced to leave their hometowns behind.

"This is simply a measure to reduce (radiation)," an official in the deserted Fukushima village of Katsurao angrily said. "It's nothing more than an attempt to conceal radioactive substances."

Farther away, in Shiroi, Chiba Prefecture, some 200 km from the Fukushima No. 1 power plant, bags of contaminated soil sit piled up in a garage next to City Hall. Officials said they had no choice because its plan to create a temporary outdoor storage site has not yet been approved by residents.

"This is the last resort," said an official in charge. "And in three years, even this place will be full."

For safety, the area around the garage is off-limits and officials check radiation levels every day. Officials said they consulted with the Environment Ministry but received no concrete instructions on how to deal with the situation.

Many urban areas in Chiba Prefecture are also resorting to burying tainted soil because it is hard to find land suitable for storage. Local officials are worried the issue will emerge again when they start disposing of contaminated mud from roadside ditches, which is likely to be even more radioactive.

Many officials in the designated municipalities said they felt the central government had changed its stance on its responsibilities and involvement in the decontamination process.

Last August, five months after the nuclear crisis erupted, the nuclear disaster task force declared in its basic policy that the state will, in cooperation with prefectural governments and municipalities, bear responsibility for removing contaminated material and take necessary measures.

Yet subsequently, local authorities — with the exception of those in the immediate vicinity of the Fukushima plant — have been requested to set up temporary storage facilities and permanent disposal sites on their own.

"We have asked the Environment Ministry why the policy has been changed, but all we got was a vague response," an official at the Kashiwa Municipal Government in Chiba said.

Similarly, officials at Noda, also in Chiba, said policy details change every time the ministry sends instructions on decontamination. The ministry also declined to send representatives to briefings with the residents to get approval for storage space, saying they were too busy.

Ministry officials said the government does not require municipalities in designated decontamination areas to report what progress has been made — effectively admitting they are not clearly aware of the lack of adequate storage sites.

"With the exception of regions under the state's direct jurisdiction, we've been asking municipalities to conduct (decontamination) independently," a ministry official in charge said.

"This policy has not changed and we are also asking local authorities to conduct the final disposal at their existing facilities," he added, speaking as if the pledge by the nation's leader had never been made.

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