The Fukushima nuclear disaster released massive amounts of radioactive materials which were transported across the island-nation and around the world. More than 15 months after the onset of the March 11th earthquake and tsunami, radioactive materials are continuing to pile up in Japan with nowhere to go and no end in sight.
Far from a stable situation, a closer look at the continuing track record shows erratic knee-jerk decision making, callous and out of touch leadership, and many haphazard assumptions which have had significant impact upon the already affected evacuees and stressed out and tiring municipal officials. Decontamination efforts around the nation are constantly undergoing drastic changes, and details change every time the government experts release instructions on decontamination.
Some parts of the response are so “fluid” they could also be interpreted as “polar”, like the recent work by TEPCO workers and government officials to speed up the removal of spent fuel from Reactor 4 after assuring its absolute safety in inspection after inspection, and multiple operations to shore up the decrepit structure.
All parties in the debate are defending their own enormous stakes in the outcome, and the Japanese government and nuclear industry are working to provide a unified message of safety and control. This is having a tremendous impact not only on the affected regions, but the neighboring areas as well.
The communication and ties between local and national government agencies are breaking down under the strain, and the distance between the citizens and its leaders seems now farther apart than it has in decades. Protest rallies across the nation and most notably in Tokyo, have rapidly grown in size despite the unbearably hot summer and police barricades.
Japanese government’s annual economic report, which was released this week shows that roughly 40,000 more people left the three worst-hit prefectures than moved there during the last year. The government report sounds the alarm and stresses that the future rebuilding efforts need to be stepped up, warning that a plummeting population could undermine the foundations of the region’s economy.
The report says significantly fewer student-age residents want to stay in the affected areas. Many of them are leaving to seek new jobs and new lives in neighboring prefectures. It seems that Prime Minister Noda’s vow to “lead the decontamination efforts” has proven to be another fickle attempt to distract citizens from his more pressing efforts of tax reform and restarting nuclear power plants.
The solution is not as easy as it may sound as the Japanese government is under critical pressure to make decontamination efforts more effective and more efficient. The Environment Ministry had been previously working to have many areas to be fully cleaned by March 2014, but that target date now seemingly impossible to achieve as the agency has not even developed decontamination plans for six of the eleven municipalities located in a no-entry zone.
Decontamination vs. Recontamination
Many areas which were decontaminated last fall have been found to have returned to the same levels of radiation only a few short months later and prevent inhabitation. There are still no dates for when many of the residents can return home to areas in the northeastern prefecture of Japan.
This week the government has started the first decontamination projects in one of the former no-entry zones around Tamura City. The lack of response has meant local residents are required to volunteer to aid in the decontamination efforts, and even forced the government to hire private contractors to perform decontamination work, which increases the risk to both the workers and the communities themselves.
A more startling fact may be that the Ministry has not been able to acquire enough space for temporary storage of contaminated soil and other waste. The government had planned to build temporary storage sites around the Fukushima Daiichi site to store the waste until its final disposal, but is facing fierce opposition from the locals in response to the central governments vaguely defined and evasive efforts.
Evasive you say? The central government has not requested or required any reports on the status of acquiring adequate storage space, and what progress has been made, effectively demonstrating their willingness to abandon such details to the locals to sort out.
This is no assertion. It is an admitted fact when central government officials have forced to weigh in. “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 reported to the Japan Times.
In fact, the Ministry has declined multiple requests from local officials to send experts and representatives to public meetings with residents, to help and explain the need and work to obtain approval for storage sites, saying they were too busy.
Another example of these controversial decisions which has generated contention came about after being unable to secure storage locations, which forced central government officials to come up with a new plan, which was ultimately called “upside-down” storage, merely turning the soil and pushing the topsoil further down.
This however, has been harshly criticized and respondents often perceive it as an ineffective and altogether inadequate response, and feel that the central government is trying to distance itself from many of the responsibilities and involvement in the massive decontamination effort.
“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.
“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.”
Large amounts of radiation are still being released every hour from the crippled reactors and contamination is spreading over the land, but the cumulative effect is showing now like molasses slowly moving across a flat surface.
Over 125 miles away from Fukushima Daiichi, bags of contaminated soil are piled in garbage dumps, a sign of the last ditch attempts to deal with a situation spiraling out of control. Local municipal officials said they consulted with the Environment Ministry but received no concrete instructions on how to deal with the situation.
Some areas, like Minamisoma, a city in Fukushima Prefecture are now re-examining their decontamination commitments, as they are unable to continue progress towards the goal while creating mountains of radioactive waste which must be monitored, tested, and hopefully moved away from populated areas.
Many urban areas in Chiba Prefecture have resorted to burying contaminated soil after being unable to find storage areas, but local officials are possibly more concerned about the collection and disposal of contaminated mud from roadside ditches thought to be far more radioactive than what has been collected to this point.