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Decontamination - Why bother?



June 16, 2013



Government secretly backtracks on Fukushima decontamination goal





With the government facing difficulty in finding disposal sites, municipalities in Fukushima Prefecture are being unofficially notified that the goal for completion of radioactive decontamination work in March 2014 may not be met, sources said.

The government also informed municipalities that it will not allow decontamination work to be redone in areas where radiation levels have not declined even after decontamination efforts have been completed.

Those remarks apparently contradict the government’s official stance that it will accelerate decontamination efforts for areas impacted by the accident at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant following the March 11, 2011, Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami. Without a clear explanation, the government has begun to backtrack on its policies.

The government aims to lower radiation levels in areas to one millisievert or less a year. It plans to achieve that goal in all of the evacuation zones in 11 municipalities in the prefecture within this fiscal year, which ends in March 2014, by spending a total of 1.5 trillion yen (about $15 billion) by the end of the year.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe also said in March that the government will accelerate decontamination work and reconstruction activities.

However, the government is facing difficulties in securing sites to store waste contaminated with radioactive materials, due to local opposition. As a result, the government has yet to start decontamination work in five of the 11 municipalities where some or all residents were forced to evacuate due to high radiation levels.

Even in evacuation zones where the decontamination work has already begun, the progress rate of the work for houses was only 1 percent in Iitate village as of March.

In such circumstances, officials of five of the 11 municipalities said that they were told by the Environment Ministry in or after April that it would be difficult to achieve the goal within this fiscal year. Because of that, the town of Tomioka has begun to inform residents that the decontamination work will continue until the next fiscal year.

“The central government should officially admit the delay of the decontamination work and review the (decontamination) plans as early as possible,” said a Tomioka official in charge of the issue.

The ministry has also effectively rejected redoing decontamination efforts in areas where radiation levels have not declined. In a meeting with seven municipalities, held in May 27 to exchange opinions, the ministry told them, “As of now, we are not allowing the redoing of decontamination work."

The stance is apparently contradictory to the government’s policy that redoing decontamination work could fall under the government’s fiscal measures to cover the costs. The policy was described in a document related to the government’s guidelines on decontamination work.

The contradiction is creating a backlash among municipalities because 25 municipalities have said that radiation levels have yet to decline to one millisievert in some of their areas even after decontamination work was completed.

As for decontamination plans, the Environment Ministry told The Asahi Shimbun that the policy of achieving the goal within this fiscal year is unchanged.

As for a second round of decontamination efforts, the ministry said that, currently, it has yet to target any areas. Therefore, that shows a priority being placed on areas where decontamination efforts have not been conducted at all.

“We cannot make drastic reviews until the July Upper House election,” said a high-ranking official of the ministry.

The decontamination work is apparently facing a slowdown. Though two years and three months have passed since the accident at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant, decontamination work has yet to start in many areas.

In addition, additional decontamination work is not being allowed, even if radiation levels do not decline as a result of decontamination efforts. Incidents of slipshod decontamination workhave also been revealed. Citizens are also having growing doubts on the cost-benefit performance of the decontamination work.

Opinions of residents are mixed. Residents, especially elderly citizens who want to return to their houses as early as possible, are placing strong hopes on the decontamination work. Meanwhile, according to a survey conducted by the village of Iitate in June 2012, more than 40 percent of the respondents replied that they don't expect to benefit from the decontamination efforts. In a Tomioka town survey, whose results were released in February this year, 40 percent of the respondents said that they have decided not to return to their houses.

Many of the affected people are also requesting assistance for their current livelihoods rather than decontamination efforts.

Unless the government shows a clear road map for the decontamination work, residents cannot make plans for their future.

Delay of decontamination work became obvious in March when progress rates of those efforts were compiled. However, Environment Minister Nobuteru Ishihara said in the Diet in May, “There are no changes in the government’s plans.”

On the surface, the government is saying that it will accelerate decontamination efforts. Behind the scenes, however, it is showing an opposite stance. That means that the government is abandoning its responsibilities.

The government needs to show realistic decontamination policies to the public and make efforts to obtain their support for them.

The Fukushima prefectural government has not recorded any cases in which a second round of decontamination work has been allowed.

In the village of Yugawa in the prefecture, decontamination work was completed in fiscal 2012, which ended in March 2013. On June 5, the village asked the ministry for a second round of efforts, fearing that radiation levels could rise again due to melting snow. However, the ministry rejected the request, saying, “In principle, we cannot do them.”

“The Environment Ministry’s attitude toward us has always been terrible. We are not surprised at such a rejection,” said an official of the village.

(This article was compiled from reports from Miki Aoki, Tamiyuki Kihara and Toshio Tada.)


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