Local Japanese governments overwhelmed by contaminated waste raise risk of recontamination

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Mountains of rubble piling up in some prefectures can be measured in terms of decades of waste, equivalent to 11 years of waste in Iwate prefecture, and 19 years of waste in Miyagi prefecture.  Only 5 percent of the total amount of rubble created by last year’s disaster has been processed so far.  The main reason for reconstruction delays is concern about radiation from the destroyed Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.

Eighty-six percent of the nation’s 1,742 municipalities and 47 prefectural governments are reluctant to store or dispose of disaster debris from Iwate and Miyagi prefectures in part because it may be tainted with fallout from the Fukushima nuclear crisis.  One third of the municipalities said it is not likely they would accept the waste, while 53 percent said they had no plans to accept the waste at all.

Fukushima has been temporarily keeping such waste at an undisclosed location in its mountains, but the total amount is set to end up being much more than the government expected, city officials said.  Some are concerned that, even after the clean-up, radioactive substances would easily come down from the mountains that surround the region’s cities and towns and re-contaminate their land.  The Japanese government drew criticism after it awarded the first decontamination contracts to major construction companies that had benefited from building nuclear power plants.

Hiroaki Koide, assistant professor at the Kyoto University Research Reactor Institute, says it is impossible to thoroughly decontaminate land, and the government-led operation is just moving radioactive material from one place to another.

Scientist’s data shows that the largest released of radiation occurred between March 12th and March 25th, with the heaviest releases coming before the 15th.  Over 15 major radiation releases have been recorded, and TEPCO has yet to release all of the information regarding the measured levels during that time.  Some areas hundreds of kilometers from Fukushima are contaminated with hundreds of thousands of becquerels of radioactive cesium, which has a half-life around 30 years.

The data provided by authorities on radiation exposure by workers at the plant and local residents wasn’t precise or detailed enough.  Japanese authorities failed to take measurements of radioactivity in the thyroids of people and especially children in the vicinity of Fukushima in the days after the accident.  High levels of radioactive contamination were found in some vegetables, milk, fish, rice, meat and tea leaves, and the government was forced to ban the shipment of those goods.

Contaminated sludge generated from radiation-contaminated waste water as well as ash tainted with radioactive materials amounts to over 140,000 tons in 12 prefectures — 3.6 times the figure as of July last year, according to the Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Ministry.

  • 6,500 tons of ash from general waste was still kept at the facilities.
    • 2,200 tons were in Ibaraki Prefecture
    • 1,900 tons in Chiba Prefecture.
      • Nagareyama municipal government in Chiba Prefecture has about 750 tons of ash, in July 28,100 becquerels of radioactive materials per kilogram were detected in the ash.

Tokyo needs to find or build storage for 90 million cubic metres of radioactive waste, equivalent to 72 domed baseball stadiums, Deputy Environment Minister Hideki Minamikawa said in September 2011.  Many local governments in the Tokyo metropolitan area do not have their own final disposal sites for sewage sludge and ash.  In Nasu and Nasu-Shiobara in Tochigi Prefecture about 11,800 tons of soil has been left in school compounds.

The  Yomiuri Shimbun asked local governments in Tokyo and six other prefectures with waste water processing facilities how they have handled sewage sludge, it found a total of 103,100 tons of sludge — including that which has been incinerated and reduced — was still at the facilities.  Over 52,700 tons was reported in Saitama Prefecture, the highest of the seven prefectures.

6,800 metric tons of rice straw contaminated with radioactive substances from the crippled Fukushima Plant remains in eight prefectures with no immediate prospect of disposal.  The waste carries a risk of chronic and lasting contamination of the environment..  Cattle farmers who cannot dispose of tainted rice straw in temporary storage facilities are worried, saying, “It will affect our cultivation work starting this spring.”

Radioactive Rice Straw

  • Miyagi Prefecture has the largest store of tainted rice straw, with 4,800 metric tons,
  • only about 2,880 tons of it can be stored temporarily in the foreseeable future
  • Fukushima with 1,100 tons,
  • Iwate with 600 tons
  • Tochigi with 320 tons
  • Ichinoseki with 400 tons
  • Radioactive Sludge

    • Fukushima Prefecture also had 30,000 tons of sludge and ash tainted with radioactive cesium at its sewage treatment facilities as of Feb. 3 —  25,220 tons more than in July last year.
    • Miyagi Prefecture with 22,000 tons (up 19,900 tons from July),
    • Kanagawa with 19,000 tons (an increase of 14,690 tons),
    • 9,500 tons in Saitama (6,790 tons more than in July).

    Decontamination work is hard and labor-intensive, leaves, bark, and branches must be removed, soil must also be scraped and removed, entire pastures of grass have to be ripped up and hauled away.  It takes a long time, and a lot of money.

    Didier Champion, crisis manager at the Institute for Radiological Protection and Nuclear Safety (IRSN), told reporters almost a year after the disaster,  “There are risks of chronic exposure at low dosage, and without care this can build up over time,” he warned.

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