Cleaning up Fukushima
Roughly 80% of Fukushima Prefecture is wooded and mountainous. (Photo: Adriaan Tijsseling)
It’s been a year since three nuclear reactors and radioactive fuel pools melted down at the Fukushima power plant in Japan. The disaster contaminated nearly ten percent of the island nation. Journalist Winifred Bird lives in Japan and tells host Bruce Gellerman about the efforts to decontaminate the vast area.
GELLERMAN: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, it’s Living on Earth. I’m Bruce Gellerman. It was a year ago on March 11th at precisely 2:46 in the afternoon…
GELLERMAN: When the most powerful earthquake ever to hit Japan shook the earth for six terrifying minutes….
[SOUND OF BIRDS]
GELLERMAN: Finally, it was over; the air was still - and eerily calm.
[SOUND OF SIRENS]
GELLERMAN: Then sirens began to wail, warning of a tsunami. Giant waves pounded Japan’s Pacific coast, submerging the emergency backup generators at the Fukushima Nuclear Power plant, leading to a meltdown of spent radioactive fuel and reactors.
Freelance American journalist Winifred Bird lives 300 miles south west of Fukushima.
BIRD: I turned on the TV which is what I always do when there's an earthquake and pretty soon these images started coming in of, you know, the little pre-tsunami waves kind of washing over the ports and it just kind of escalated and escalated. It took me maybe a few hours to realize that this wasn't your normal disaster.
GELLERMAN: More than 16 thousand people died, and a million were evacuated from a 12-mile zone around the nuclear power plant as radiation spread. Now, the Japanese government has decided to decontaminate the vast region, and Winifred Bird writes about the Herculean effort in the on-line publication: Yale Environment 360.
BIRD: The Central Government is in charge of decontaminating the evacuation area, which is about 1,000 square kilometers - about 500 square kilometers of that is very severely contaminated. However, there’s radioactive materials spread over a much larger area, so it all depends on how much people decide that they want to clean up.
GELLERMAN: So, they’ve got this vast area that’s contaminated. What do they hope to do? How do they hope to decontaminate it?
BIRD: The methods vary depending on what you’re decontaminating. It’s mostly radio-cesium that they’re trying to clean up - it’s actually quite sticky, so you know, it falls down in rain from the atmosphere, and it is initially on the surface of leaves and buildings and it eventually starts to be washed down into the soil, especially with clay soils, it really sticks to the soil.
So, say if you want to clean up a building, a concrete building, you can say spray it down or wipe it down, but if you’re talking about cleaning up a forest, now we’re getting into removing leaf litter, removing soil, you might even need to cut the branches off the trees or possibly even, in some cases, cut the whole tree down. So, 80 percent of Fukushima Prefecture is covered in forest and farms, so you can’t just ignore the forest and focus on towns only.
Another issue is that Fukushima is very mountainous, as is much of Japan, so even if you have an isolated town down in a valley and you have a forest up above it, you have the issue of contamination washing down continuously from the forest and hillside. It’s a huge problem and nobody has quite figured out what to do about it.
GELLERMAN: So, when you wash this stuff off, this sticky cesium, what do you do with the water?
BIRD: (Laughs.) Right. So that’s a big problem that the government and the contractors working on this have discovered as they begin to experiment with different methods, is, essentially if you rely on washing down the surfaces of buildings and other artificial materials, you’re just moving the contamination around in the environment. So you’re moving it from a house into a river, ultimately into the ocean. Or, you’re maybe moving it onto your neighbor’s property.
So they’ve come up with several possible solutions, one is wiping things down instead of washing. Another one is using a vacuum at the same time as a sprayer, so it’s kind of like when you go to the dentist and they have the vacuum in your mouth as they’re putting the water in…
GELLERMAN: Uh huh.
BIRD: But, obviously, that’s really hard to do on a huge scale.
GELLERMAN: What a mess! What about the soil?
BIRD: Highly contaminated soil does need to be removed in large quantities. The Ministry of the Environment has estimated that between 15 and 31 million cubic meters of soil and debris will need to be removed from Fukushima Prefecture, and it’s quite possible that that number could rise.
GELLERMAN: That’s a lot of soil. Where do you put it?
BIRD: So, that’s the problem - nobody wants the soil in their town long term. Temporarily, you just kind of store it near where you’ve removed it, and that’s where it is right now. But the government wants to create a mid-term storage facility somewhere within the contaminated, the highly contaminated area.
GELLERMAN: This has got to be very, very expensive to clean up this contamination. Any idea, has the government said, how much it could cost?
BIRD: Well, the government has already allotted over one trillion yen, which is about 12 or 13 billion dollars, and I expect that the costs will exceed that significantly.
GELLERMAN: How does Fukushima’s fallout compare to Chernobyl’s?
BIRD: The amount of radionuclides released is quite a bit smaller. The most recent estimate was about 20 percent of what was emitted from Chernobyl. But one of the big differences is that after the Chernobyl disaster, the government permanently moved the residents from, I think it was a 19 mile radius around the damaged nuclear power plant. And aside from cleaning up roads and towns in that area, they pretty much gave up on the idea of cleaning up the farmland and forests.
GELLERMAN: Yeah, it became an exclusionary zone.
BIRD: That’s right, and it still is today over 25 years later. In Japan, the Japanese government doesn’t want to do that. There’s not a ton of area to resettle people, so the government wants as much as possible to clean up the contamination and move people back into that area.
GELLERMAN: How are the Japanese people reacting to these efforts? Do they have confidence that the decontamination efforts are going to work?
BIRD: I think that a lot of people are extremely skeptical. A huge amount of trust in the government and in industry has been lost as a result of this disaster. Evacuees who I’ve talked to that used to live quite close to the nuclear plant have told me that they no longer want to move back no matter what the government does or says, because they don’t trust in those promises.
So I think that one of the main things the government is going to have to work on is building back some semblance of credibility with the public.
GELLERMAN: Winifred, thank you so very much.
BIRD: Thank you, it's been a pleasure.
GELLERMAN: Winifred Bird is a freelance journalist living in Japan. Well, since the disaster Japan has pulled the plug on all but two of its 53 nuclear reactors. The nation has always been energy poor, it imports 95 percent of its fuel. But for the past decade Japan has been investigating a very unconventional energy source in the sea just off the coast.
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