JAPAN | Decontaminating soil, lowering radiation levels needed to lift evacuation order

Posted on July 20, 2011

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JAPAN | MAINICHI | 20 July 2011

A worker from the Japan Atomic Energy Agency measures radiation levels in a sandbox at the Fukushima University-affiliated kindergarten in Fukushima on May 8, 2011. (Mainichi)

A worker from the Japan Atomic Energy Agency measures radiation levels in a sandbox at the Fukushima University-affiliated kindergarten in Fukushima on May 8, 2011. (Mainichi)

In order to lift the evacuation order in areas around the crippled Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant, controlling the radiation dosage at low levels and decontaminating soil are the foremost prerequisites.

However, even after the evacuation order is lifted, the affected areas will face a string of problems, including employment and community rebuilding.

“People won’t be able to settle down unless they have jobs. I want authorities to not only lift the evacuation order but to also take every possible measure to bring people back there,” said a 50-year-old operator of a retail store in Minamisoma, Fukushima Prefecture.

The city of Minamisoma is part of the 20-kilometer-radius no-go zone as well as the emergency evacuation preparation zone. After the March 11 Great East Japan Earthquake and the ensuing nuclear crisis, the city’s key industries of agriculture and fisheries were devastated, while business offices in the manufacturing sector were shut down or downsized.

Four other municipalities in the prefecture that are in the no-go zone and the emergency evacuation preparation zones are also worried about removal of radioactive materials and restoration of housing units that have remained unoccupied by their residents for a long period of time.

“In order to form a community, it will be desirable for residents to return to their hometowns together. I wonder, though, if we can bring people back once they have been scattered, including children who have transferred to other schools,” said an official with the Kawauchi Municipal Government — a village that falls within the 20- to 30-kilometer-radius stay indoors zone.

Another headache for the affected municipalities is disposal of debris and sludge. While the updated timetable for bringing the Fukushima nuclear power plant under control stipulates that collection, temporary storage and disposal of debris and sludge will begin in the Step 2 period, the plan is facing tough challenges as it is difficult to find municipalities that can ultimately accept such waste. Some municipalities are urging that ultimate disposal sites be determined as soon as possible.

The NNSA hazard map released by the U.S. federal government. The Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant is marked by a white dot at right.

The NNSA hazard map released by the U.S. federal government. The Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant is marked by a white dot at right.

There is approximately 600,000 tons of debris in Minamisoma, with some 150,000 tons of it collected during the search for missing people and left dumped for more than two months at a planned construction site. The remaining debris is also left piled up in tsunami-ravaged areas.

“No areas will come forward to take such debris,” said an official with the Minamisoma Municipal Government’s disaster countermeasures headquarters.

Radioactive sludge that is generated at sewage plants is yet another headache. At a sewage plant in the Haramachi district of Minamisoma, the amount of radioactive sludge has topped 80 tons, threatening the facility’s capacity. While the return of residents to the area would mean an increase in the amount of sludge, the municipal government has not been able to find a place to temporarily place contaminated sludge.

Despite the government-set standard for the amount of radiation in sludge that can be landfilled, there are cases in which radioactive sludge has nowhere to go due to local residents’ opposition. Based on the standard that allows for landfill disposal of sludge whose radiation dosage is under 8,000 becquerels per kilogram, the Fukushima Prefectural Government decided to transfer 1,100-becquerel levels of sludge from a sewage plant in the prefectural town of Kunimi to a final disposal site in the prefecture town of Yanaizu. Although the sludge’s radiation dosage was lower than the limit, the town and its residents refused to accept the sludge, saying, “We are concerned about possible health damage that could emerge several years later.”

“Even if the central government has included disposal of debris and sludge in Step 2, local residents will not necessarily agree to accept contaminated sludge easily. It is a worrisome problem,” said an official with the prefectural government’s public sewage division.

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