09 Jan 2012: Report

As Fukushima Cleanup Begins,
Long-term Impacts are Weighed

The Japanese government is launching a large-scale cleanup of the fields, forests, and villages contaminated by the Fukushima nuclear disaster. But some experts caution that an overly aggressive remediation program could create a host of other environmental problems.

by winifred bird

Following the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl 25 years ago, the Soviet government chose long-term evacuation over extensive decontamination; as a result, the plants and animals near Chernobyl inhabit an environment that is both largely devoid of humans and severely contaminated by radioactive fallout.

The meltdown last March of three nuclear reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan also contaminated large areas of farmland and forests, albeit not as severely or extensively as at Chernobyl. But lacking land for resettlement and facing public outrage over the accident, the Japanese government has chosen a very different path, embarking on a decontamination effort of unprecedented scale.

Beginning this month, at least 1,000 square kilometers of land — much of it forest and farms — will be cleaned up as workers power-spray buildings, scrape soil off fields, and remove fallen leaves and undergrowth from woods near houses. The goal is to make all of Fukushima livable again. But as scientists, engineers, and ordinary residents begin this massive task, they face the possibility that their efforts will create new environmental problems in direct proportion to their success in remediating the radioactive contamination.

“Decontamination can be really effective, [but] what you have is a tradeoff between dose reduction and environmental impact,” says Kathryn Higley, a radioecologist at Oregon State University who has studied several
Officials estimate that Fukushima will have to dispose of 15 to 31 million cubic meters of contaminated soil and debris.
decontamination sites in the United States. That’s because the radioactive particles the Japanese are trying to get rid of can be quite “sticky.” Removing them without removing large amounts of soil, leaves, and living plants is nearly impossible. The Ministry of Environment estimates that Fukushima will have to dispose of 15 to 31 million cubic meters of contaminated soil and debris by the time the decontamination projects end. Costs are predicted to exceed a trillion yen.

Given these drawbacks, an International Atomic Energy Agency fact-finding mission advised the Japanese authorities to “avoid over-conservatism” in their decontamination plans — in other words, not to clean up more than necessary to protect human health. Yet the health impacts of long-term exposure to low levels of radiation are not entirely clear. Many scientists believe exposure to even very low levels can slightly increase cancer risk, and many Fukushima residents feel they should not be forced to live with that risk — or the undercurrent of fear it brings.

But while the political debate over how much to clean up rages on, more practical preparations are already underway. On a frigid afternoon last month, about 160 workers wearing papery white jumpsuits and hot pink respirators filed up a winding road into a farming hamlet in Kawamata Town, about an hour southeast of Fukushima and just inside the evacuation zone. Were it not for the bright blue plastic sheets, heavy-duty leaf vacuums, cranes, and trucks scattered everywhere, the village would have been picturesque. Now, the intricacy of the landscape — its tiny rice paddies, bamboo groves, woodlots, streams, and earth-walled barns — was adding to the challenges of decontamination.

The workers fanned out over the otherwise abandoned rolling hills and brown fields. One group climbed a hill to rake fallen leaves into large black bags, while another spread magnesium over fields to solidify the soil for
The effectiveness and efficiency of various decontamination technologies is being tested at 19 model sites.
later removal. Nearby, another of the indistinguishable white figures chopped down overgrown weeds.

The workers had been hired by Taisei Corporation, one of three large construction firms that won contracts from the Japan Atomic Energy Agency to test the effectiveness and efficiency of various decontamination technologies at 19 model sites throughout Fukushima Prefecture. The results of these experiments will guide the large-scale decontamination effort set to begin later this month.

Human exposure can be lowered without cleansing the entire landscape, of course. Japan’s bans on hunting bears and wild pigs, selling wild mushrooms, and growing rice in certain areas fall into this category; so does the recommendation from Fukushima’s agriculture department that farmers add potassium fertilizer to moderately contaminated fields in order to minimize cesium uptake by crops. As for forests, the focus for the time being is on decontaminating only patches close to homes because most people spend little time in remote woods.

But because the most heavily contaminated parts of Fukushima are, like the village in Kawamata, a hilly mosaic of houses, woods, and fields, the government can’t leave nature entirely untouched. Houses backed by wooded hills are very common, as are fields in small valleys; in both cases, runoff from uphill can recontaminate lowlands. Intense public concern over contaminated food, meanwhile, means many farmers want to clean up their land as quickly and thoroughly as possible.

Click to enlarge
Fukushima Japan Nuclear Decontamination

STR/AFP/Getty Images
Japanese soldiers collect contaminated leaves in Fukushima Prefecture.
Japan’s decontamination efforts are focused mostly on the radionuclides caesium-134 and caesium-137, which are currently present in approximately equal amounts and have half-lives of two and 30 years respectively. Although other radionuclides have been found in Japan, these two pose the greatest long-term threat to human health through ingestion and external exposure. Radiocaesium has been found in all of Japan’s prefectures but is most highly concentrated within an oblong swath that extends about 50 kilometers northwest of the plant, and to a lesser extent throughout eastern and central Fukushima Prefecture.

Radiological risk assessment expert John Till, president of the U.S.-based Risk Assessment Corporation, says the fallout will probably be gone from the surface of plants within a few years, but attach strongly, through ion exchange, to soil — in particular to the clay soils common throughout Fukushima. From there the radiocaesium will move slowly into plants, at a rate — and level of risk — that is still unclear.

Remediation methods that work, Higley says, “seem kind of absurd but actually make sense”: cutting, scraping, raking, and plowing, to varying degrees of depth and severity. Government agencies, private companies, and academics are all experimenting to find the most efficient and effective methods for Fukushima. The prefectural government has recommended removing leaf litter from woods within 20 meters of houses and deeply plowing or turning over fields to dilute contamination. In the heavily contaminated fields that cover at least 8,000 hectares around Fukushima, several centimeters of topsoil will likely be removed. Some farmers are power-washing their orchards or shaving bark off trees.

Officials involved with the cleanup are well aware of the drawbacks to these approaches: huge amounts of radioactive waste that no one wants to store long term; immense investments of money, labor, and time; damage to wildlife habitat and soil fertility; increased erosion on scraped-bare
‘You take away all the soil and the ecosystem is destroyed,’ says one scientist.
hillsides; and intrusion by people and machinery into every area scheduled for remediation.

“You remove leaf litter from the forest floor and radiation levels fall,” said Shinichi Nakayama, a nuclear engineer at the Japan Atomic Energy Agency who is overseeing the 19 decontamination pilot projects planned or underway. “You take away the deeper layers and they fall more. But you take it all away and the ecosystem is destroyed. Water retention goes down and flooding can occur.”

Although no significant conservation areas lie within the most contaminated parts of Fukushima, some species on the prefecture’s Red List of endangered or threatened species — including a grassland butterfly and the Japanese peregrine falcon, both listed as “vulnerable” — are found there and could be impacted if projects like these are implemented on a large scale.

But Kiyomi Yokota, a naturalist and secretary of the Fukushima Nature Conservation Association, said that standing up for wildlife in the current situation would be difficult. “If people want to go home, I don’t think I could tell them, ‘No, stop the decontamination, save the fish,’” he said. Human health, in other words, trumps habitat.

But just how much fallout does the government need to remove in order to protect human health? On that key question the science is frustratingly inconclusive.

Past studies have shown that cancer rates rise in populations exposed to a dose of 100 millisieverts (mSv) of radiation. They reveal much less about the situation in Fukushima, where lower doses will continue for many years. (Measurements taken in Fukushima City in late December, for instance, ranged from .33 to 1.04 microsieverts per hour; sustained for a year, that adds up to doses of 2.9 to 9.1 millisieverts.) The International Commission on Radiological Protection recommends that the general public be exposed to a yearly dose of no more than 1 to 20 mSv following a nuclear accident; those two numbers represent the difference between a decontamination effort confined to about 500 square kilometers and one encompassing much of Fukushima Prefecture and beyond.

So far, Japan’s central government has taken direct responsibility for decontaminating areas within 20 kilometers of the plant and those where yearly exposure could exceed 20 mSv. (Together these areas make up the evacuation zone.) The Environment Ministry predicts natural radioactive decay and weathering alone will reduce levels 40 percent within two years; Large-scale versions of the decontamination pilot projects will supposedly do the rest.


Radioactivity in the Ocean:
Diluted, But Far from Harmless

Radioactivity in the Ocean: Diluted, But Far from Harmless
The release of contaminated water from the crippled Fukushima nuclear complex last year stoked concerns about how that radioactivity might affect marine life in the Pacific. While the ocean’s capacity to dilute radiation is huge, Elizabeth Grossman reported last year that nuclear isotopes were already moving up the local food chain.
Some residents and activist groups like Greenpeace have called for a faster and more aggressive decontamination effort, while others believe most of Fukushima is already safe enough to live in. Still others doubt decontamination will succeed and are pushing the government to spend money on relocation instead.

“Safe? What is safe?” Sumiko Toyoguchi, an elderly evacuee who used to live six kilometers from the nuclear plant and now lives in temporary housing in Fukushima City, asked last month. She said she doesn’t want to return to her former home even after decontamination takes place, in part because she worries the work won’t be done adequately.

Ten months after the nuclear disaster, trust in the authorities is nearly nonexistent. Without it, Japan’s government risks the biggest cleanup fiasco of all: a decontamination effort that carries huge financial and environmental costs but still fails to convince Fukushima residents that their homes, farms, and forests are safe once again.

POSTED ON 09 Jan 2012 IN Biodiversity Energy Forests Policy & Politics Policy & Politics Pollution & Health Asia 


This is typical of the wildly exaggerated attention to the horrors of anything "nuclear".
The major catastrophes were the earthquake and the tsunami, both of which are ultimately caused by the otherwise beneficent natural radioactivity that fuels all tectonic forces, without which no living multicellular organism would have had time to evolve.

Posted by albert rogers on 09 Jan 2012

I hope the Japanese people are able to choose an optimal solution. Such a solution will limit as much as possible some of the extremely expensive and senseless operations described in this excellent article.

The level of radiation in Fukushima is mostly very low. Nothing to worry about. The people should be allowede to return home, and they should get freee cancer screening every 3 months for the next 20 years IMHO. It will be the cheapest and best solution for the Japanse people and Japan.

Oh, and they should start building new power plants to replace the damaged ones of course!

All the best.

Posted by Joris van Dorp on 09 Jan 2012

Excellent article. You've done a great job of summarizing the current mess, particularly with the complications and challenges associated with an unprecedented decontamination program. You are absolutely correct that there is zero trust with authorities such as TEPCO and the government in Tokyo. One exception is with the local governments. Many of the town governments went to great efforts to understand the extent of the contamination and see that people were informed.

In my town, Nihonmatsu, twice daily radiation readings in 24 locations began on March 18 and have been posted on the town web site ever since.

Posted by Tom Burke on 09 Jan 2012

how can decontamination begin when they still haven't got the leak under control =/

Posted by b britton on 10 Jan 2012

The dose reported for Fukushima City, about 1 microsievert per hour, is between 1.5 and 2 times an average background dose for US residents, and it is about 17% of the allowable occupational dose for radiation workers in the US. This occupational limit is set well below the level at which any health effects have ever been observed. Unless there is also a serious risk of ingestion of radioactive dust, residents of Fukushima City should be allowed and encouraged to return to their homes now. No one should be forced to remain evacuated for a miniscule and hypothetical risk. There are parts of Brazil and Iran with at least ten times higher background radiation, with no noticeable health effects. No one is calling for their evacuation.

Posted by Roger on 10 Jan 2012

It is too bad that Japan has to be the center of the nuclear experiment. First they were bombed. Now the peaceful use of the atom to make power too cheap to meter. What will the true cost be to the Japanese. I think that the whole country needs to be evacuated.

Posted by Hartson Doak on 10 Jan 2012

I wonder why the large range of 1 to 20 millisieverts coming from the International Commission on Radiological Protection? I think there is a definite need to more clearly define what is safe and what is not, and show the levels of risk vs. radiation levels, so a more accurate assessment can be made through a process transparent to the people affected, and done with the presence of community members - leave it up to those most affected to decide.

Posted by Chuck Kottke on 10 Jan 2012

Why is the radioactive decontamination of Northern Japan being referred to by the nuclear industry as "cleanup"? This is yet another PR attempt to put a smiling face on what for hundreds of thousands of people is a nuclear nightmare! The Gov't. has not even revealed what their isotopic analysis has found, mostly talking only about cesium which has been widely spread due to the reactor explosion, the triple meltdowns and of course the burning of radioactive tsunami debris...

Question about the way the article was written:
RE: "The Ministry of Environmen­t estimates that Fukushima will have to dispose of 15 to 31 m cubic metres of contaminat­ed soil and debris by the time the decontamin­ation projects end. Costs are predicted to exceed a trillion yuan".

GUARDIAN ARTICLE http://gu.com/p/34hdn

Please omit #1 and #2
#1 What does the m stand for (Thousand or MILLION)

#2 Why the use of Yuan instead of Yen? Is this a "typo"?
it would be best to include a conversion to Pounds and or
USD since your audience is Global!
What are the "costs" that are predicted "to exceed a trillion yen," is it this "just" this one decontamination project itself or is it the projected cost of all decontamination projects in Japan; (if it is the latter it seems much too low)?

Posted by CaptD on 13 Jan 2012

Just to paraphrase Noam Chomsky when lamenting about two dangerous developments in the international arena today(first, nuclear weapons since 1945 and second is threat of environmental catastrophe). He emphasized that something must be done in a disciplined and sustained way, and very soon.

"You can't achieve significant initiatives without a large, active, popular base. Organizing such a base involves EDUCATION and ACTIVISM.

After all, KARL MARX, long time ago said: "The task is not just to understand the world but to change it."

Therefore, nuclear power is not clean, no cheap, and neither safe!

Posted by NIJAZ DELEUT KEMO on 16 Jan 2012

I think that in 10 years we will know that this is the worst catastrophe in the world ... http://paul-lemmingseo2.com

Posted by Lemmingseo2 on 16 Jan 2012

ANY reactor that requires water for cooling is just plain asking for trouble as they are engineered to go against the laws of physics. Only through such good engineering standards did not all of them melt down (and because we all kept the grid going without overly long outages). All it takes is a severe solar flare storm and or a small atomic blast many miles overhead (EMP blast) to render bucket brigades a necessity! Worst yet, probable civil unrest in such an emergency would restrain options to get and keep water on today's reactors...

Had all of these reactors been of the molten salt (MSR, LFTR, IFR, ect), there would have been no meltdowns and no worries (and 100x the fuel efficiency). Simple as that!

Posted by Robert Bernal on 25 Jan 2012

Dear Winfred Bird,

Thank you very much for very update article.

In Belarus after Chernobyl disaster we have got very big experience on the topic of remediation of radioactively contaminated soil. I hope that it will be useful for Japan. Can you send me your email address? I am ready to provide you update information for publication: the results of our research on this topic and our 25 years experience concerning remediation of radioactive contaminated soil.
Look forward to hear you.

With the best regards,
Dr. Leanid Maskalchuk,
Remadiation of Techno Polluted Terriotories Laboratory, Head,
Minsk, Belarus

Posted by Dr. Leanid Maskalchuk on 04 Feb 2012

As you pointed out: "Past studies have shown that cancer rates rise in populations exposed to a dose of 100 millisieverts (mSv) of radiation." Indeed, any definitive data suggests 1,000 mSV before effects are seen. However, the world was "sold" the linear no threshold (LNT) theory 60 years ago (as a regulatory oversimplification) and we now see the unintended consequences of that approach, in world-wide radiophobia and excessive evacuations and cleanup.

Posted by Mark on 26 Mar 2012

Absorb the cesium into one of these akaganeite (beta-FeOOH) particles, dextran-coated ferrihydrite (5 Fe(2)O(3)-9H(2)O) particles, and ferritin. Then it will become ferrous — remove it from the soil via magnet.


Posted by steve on 31 May 2012

How many years for this city to be livable again?
Posted by on 11 Nov 2012

Although I agree with those that have been suggesting means by which to avoid siingficant exposure to radiation, I am highly critical of the way the media have exploited peoples already high levels of anxiety by further raising the fear level in people, effectively causing a global panic amongst western nations regarding nuclear power and radiation.

I'm not a scientist or a student studying such matters, but I think if all of us took the time to look outside of the media everyone would discover that the media has overblown this situation. It is wonderful that the world has come together to help the people of Japan, but it is also extremely unfortunate that the media and governments the across the globe have effectively raised the levels of fear and anxiety, which have been blown out of proportion.

When Gregory Jaczko announced before Congress that the government in Tokyo is not trustworthy, and Washington is, has left the world in a rather idiotic panic, scrambling for potassium iodide even in Miami.

It is also unfortunate that Washington should discredit the Japanese governments 30km evacuation zone, by suggesting an 80km evacuation zone. Radiation levels in Tokyo are far below potentially hazardous levels (levels at which SOME people may experience nausea and headaches), and are lower than they would be in high elevation cities like Denver, or even Paris.

In Tokyo radiation levels are below .20 microsieverts, while in a city like Denver radiation levels can be between .45 and .70 microsieverts. Radiation levels in a city like Chicago or Paris can be as high as .40 microsieverts. In other words its harmless. Even in areas just outside the 30km evacuation zone, radiation levels are siingficantly below potentially health effecting levels at below 5 microsieverts, which amounts to 50 banana's.

If you live in the middle of a banana plantation you are exposed to more radiation, in other words, again, harmless. People who fly regularly are exposed to far higher levels of radiation, anywhere from 100 to 300 microsieverts, depending on the length of the flight. The levels of radiation within the 30km evacuation zone, although differing siingficantly by area, are as of now lower than what one would expect to be exposed to on a trans-pacific flight.

Reports of levels of radiation that are hundreds of times higher than normal levels fail to report that the levels of radiation that begin to cause potential health hazards are 250,000 microsieverts. Which, when we compare to the highest levels of radiation outside of the immediate vicinity of the power plant, 90-105 microsieverts, we see that the current panic is baseless and has effectively caused an unnecessary panic of hoarding and unnecessary traffic congestion. The government evacuated people when levels were still well below harmful levels, and to further note, below levels one would experience from a trans-pacific flight.

The government has been remarkably transparent throughout this incident, there are plenty of private online live geiger counters to see levels across the Kanto area to prove that. We must also remember that people like Gregory Jaczko, who have caused this unnecessary panic, have known political leanings against nuclear power. Jaczko is not neutral, and has more interest in exploding the situation by scaring the people with the worst-case scenarios and of apocalypse, by shouting Chernobyl which is just disgusting. Then the media followed suit. The likes of CNN and Fox, have created a firestorm of panic, both unnecessary and dangerous. I'm not suggesting blindly following the Tokyo's announcements, but on this occasion I think there is greater reason to believe that the government has been highly transparent.

I ask those that are believing the announcements being made in Washington or Paris to evacuate areas up to 80km why would you trust someone in Paris or Washington, who are not being fed immediate and accurate information from those at the plant this very minute, over those in Tokyo who are?

Posted by Safe on 13 May 2013

Comments have been closed on this feature.
winifred birdABOUT THE AUTHOR
Winifred Bird is a freelance journalist living in Japan. She has written about the environment for the Japan Times, Environmental Health Perspectives, and other publications.. In a previous article for Yale Environment 360, she reported on the struggle to maintain bear populations in heavily urbanized Japan.



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