Fukushima clean-up may be doomed
Critics say Japan’s government is engaged in a vast, duplicitious and fruitless campaign
Across much of Fukushima’s rolling green countryside they descend on homes like antibodies around a virus, men wielding low-tech tools against a very modern enemy: radiation. Power hoses, shovels and mechanical diggers are used to scour toxins that rained down from the sky 30 months ago. The job is exhausting, expensive and, say some, doomed to failure.
Today, a sweating four-man crew wearing surgical masks and boiler suits clean the home of Hiroshi Saito (71) and his wife Terue (68). Their aim is to bring average radiation at this home down to 1.5 microsieverts an hour, still several times what it was before the incident but safe enough, perhaps, for Saito’s seven grandchildren to visit. “My youngest grandchild has never been here,” he says.
For a few days in March 2011, after explosions at the Daiichi nuclear plant roughly 25km (15.5 miles) to the south, rain and snow laced with radiation fell across this area, contaminating thousands of acres of rich farming land and forests.
More than 160,000 people closest to the plant were ordered to evacuate. The Saitos’ home fell a few kilometres outside the 20km compulsory evacuation zone but, like thousands of others, they left voluntarily.
When they returned two weeks later their two-storey country house appeared undamaged, but it was covered in an invisible poison only detectable with beeping Geiger counters.
Nobody knows for certain how dangerous the radiation is. Japan’s central government refined its policy in December 2011, defining evacuation zones as “areas where cumulative dose levels might reach 20 millisieverts per year”, the typical worldwide limit for nuclear power plant engineers.
The worst radiation is supposed to be confined to the 20km exclusion zone, but it spread unevenly: less than 5km (three miles) north of the Daiichi plant, our Geiger counter shows less than five millisieverts a year; 40km (25 miles) northwest, in parts of Iitate village, it is well over 120 millisieverts.
Those 160,000 refugees have not returned and are scattered throughout Japan. The nuclear diaspora is swelled by thousands of voluntary refugees. Local governments are spending millions of dollars to persuade them back.
The price tag for cleaning a heavily mountainous and wooded area roughly the same size as Co Wicklow (2,000sq km) has government heads spinning. In August, experts from the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology put the total cost of decontamination at $50 billion (€37 billion). The Japan Centre for Economic Research, a Tokyo-based think tank, says the final tally for the Fukushima clean-up will be $600 billion.
The Saitos’ home falls within the boundaries of Minamisoma, a city that has not recovered from the disaster. Most of its 71,000 population fled voluntarily from the Daiichi incident 20km south. A third have yet to return.
“We’ve worked hard to make our city livable again,” says Minamisoma mayor Katsunobu Sakurai. “But everything we’ve done could be for nothing unless the problems at the plant are fixed.”
Fighting radiation is now one of Minamisoma’s few growth industries. The city has set up a permanent office to co-ordinate decontamination with a budget this year alone of $230 million. Since last September, a crew of 650 men has laboured around the local streets and countryside, cleaning schools, homes and farms.