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Mountains of unwanted ash


March 9, 2012

One year on, Chiba Prefecture faces mountain of problems including incinerated ash


Incinerated ash wrapped in tarps fills a parking lot at the Matsudo Clean Center in Chiba Prefecture. (Mainichi)

CHIBA -- Chiba Prefecture was overwhelmed with a wide variety of misfortunes and problems in the last year.

Fifteen people in the city of Asahi were killed or are still unaccounted for following the huge tsunami triggered by the magnitude 9.0 earthquake, and about 70,000 households along the Tokyo waterfront and Tone River took the brunt of liquefaction.

Then, hot spots or points of relatively intense radiation spewing from the disaster at the Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant were found in large numbers in northwestern Chiba Prefecture due to wind and rain shortly after the natural disasters and the nuclear crisis. An exodus of residents ensued, and the prefecture's population suffered its first drop since the end of World War II.

Alarmed by the unexpected drop in the prefecture's population, Gov. Kensaku Morita vows to quickly study measures, including creating a new entity within the prefectural government, to arrest the decline.

Chiba, endowed with a coastline extending some 500 kilometers, has suffered damage from tsunami over the years. But the March 11, 2011 tsunami, its arrival along the Chiba coastline and its stretch were beyond the scope of ordinary residents' imagination. For example, the tsunami reaching Asahi's Iioka district was the third wave and came over two hours after the killer earthquake struck. Some residents were swept up by the tsunami after returning to their neighborhoods.

The Iioka district and other communities along the Kujukuri coast do not have many buildings and higher ground. A prefectural study panel composed of officials and experts proposed raising the levees from the current 4 to 5 meters to 6 to 6.5 meters. Asahi Mayor Tadanao Akechi proposes expanding forest reserves to help curb tsunami's speed and energy.

The Tokyo waterfront also experienced tsunami as high as 1 to 2 meters about three to five hours after the quake. Rafts for seaweed cultivation were washed away and officials could not close floodgates in time, causing some households to be submerged. Some local governments along Tokyo Bay are hurrying to designate buildings that should be fled from in the case of future tsunami.

Chiba's population increase, ranked third in the nation in terms of the number of people and the ratio of increase, has been driven by the prefecture's northwestern region where the Tsukuba Express Line linking Akihabara in Tokyo and Tsukuba in Ibaraki Prefecture has been in operation since 2005. The region has developed into a major bedroom town in the greater metropolitan area.

But nine cities in the region were designated by the central government as areas subject to strict monitoring of radioactive contamination. As some areas logged higher levels of radioactive contamination than other areas amid heightened anxiety among residents, the cesium concentration in incinerated ash at an incineration plant in Kashiwa reached over 70,000 becquerels per kilogram in June last year.

Similar findings were reported in neighboring cities, causing a shortage of storage facilities for incinerated ash and forcing some incineration plants to repeatedly suspend operations. Massive amounts of incinerated ash were sent back to Nagareyama and other Chiba municipal governments from outside the prefecture.

While many cities were reluctant to implement measures against radiation contamination, parents and others rose to the occasion. A group of housewives and other residents in Kashiwa collected over 10,000 signatures and delivered them to Mayor Hiroyasu Akiyama. These cities came under criticism, changed course and started taking measures including decontaminating day-care centers and kindergartens and extending subsidies for the decontamination drive.

While the prefectural government is taking the initiative in trying to resolve the incinerated ash issue, local governments involved are having trouble reconciling with one another, leaving the issue unresolved.

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