‘We won’t give up’ on Fukushima

Mas­sive ef­fort un­der way to clean or re­move con­tam­i­nated ma­te­rial

The Washington Times Daily - - World - BY MARI YAMAGUCHI

WFUKUSHIMA, JA­PAN orkers in rub­ber boots chip at the frozen ground, scrap­ing un­til they’ve re­moved the top 2 inches of ra­dioac­tive soil from the yard of a sin­gle home. To­tal amount of waste gath­ered: roughly 60 tons. One down, tens of thou­sands to go. And since wind and rain spread ra­di­a­tion eas­ily, even this yard may need to be dug up again.

The work is part of a mon­u­men­tal task: a costly and un­cer­tain ef­fort by Ja­pan to try to make ra­di­a­tion-con­tam­i­nated com­mu­ni­ties in­hab­it­able again.

Some con­trac­tors are ex­per­i­ment­ing with chem­i­cals; oth­ers stick with shov­els and high-pres­sure water. One gov­ern­ment ex­pert says it’s mostly trial and er­ror.

The ra­di­a­tion leak has slowed con­sid­er­ably at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nu­clear plant, nearly one year af­ter the March 11 earth­quake and tsunami sent three of its re­ac­tors into melt­down.

Work con­tin­ues to­ward a per­ma­nent shut­down, but the Ja­panese gov­ern­ment de­clared the plant sta­ble in De­cem­ber, set­ting the stage for the next phase: de­con­tam­i­nat­ing the area so at least some of the 100,000 evac­u­ated res­i­dents can re­turn.

Spe­cial­ists lead­ing the gov­ern­ment-funded project can­not guar­an­tee suc­cess. They say there’s no prior model for what they’re try­ing to do.

Even if they suc­ceed, they’re cre­at­ing an­other prob­lem they don’t yet know how to solve: where to dump all the ra­dioac­tive soil and de­bris they haul away. Un­cer­tain out­come

The gov­ern­ment has bud­geted $14 bil­lion through March 2014 for the cleanup, which could take decades.

The un­cer­tainty plays out at many lev­els. One of the work­ers at the house with the frozen ground said they weren’t sure how to mea­sure 2 inches from the un­even ground or what to do with the snow on top of it.

“We of­ten en­counter sit­u­a­tions that are not in the man­ual and won­der if we are do­ing the right thing,” Takahiro Watan­abe said as they wrapped up on a chilly Fe­bru­ary day. “Just to be safe, we packed the snow into the bags.”

The 60 tons of ra­dioac­tive waste sat in 60 wa­ter­proof bags, wait­ing to be carted away from the house in Fukushima city’s Onami dis­trict.

Some 40 miles from the nu­clear plant, the neigh­bor­hood is a “hot spot” — an area with high ra­di­a­tion read­ings that is out­side the 12-mile ring that has re­mained closed since the early days of the cri­sis.

Res­i­dents of hot spots were en­cour­aged, but not or­dered, to leave, and some, in­clud­ing the res­i­dents of the house that was be­ing de­con­tam­i­nated, did not move out.

In the fading late af­ter­noon light, Mr. Watan­abe took a dosime­ter in his bare hand and placed it on the ground, now cov­ered with a fresh layer of re­place­ment soil. It read 0.24 mi­crosiev­erts per hour — close to the tar­get level of 0.2 and about one-fifth of what it had been be­fore. “Looks like it has come down a bit,” he said. But for how long? With so much ra­di­a­tion in the area, work­ers prob­a­bly will have to re­turn to redo this neigh­bor­hood.

And ar­eas where chil­dren gather, such as parks, schools and play­grounds, will be held to an even stricter stan­dard than homes and of­fices.

“You have to keep clean­ing up,” said Toshi­aki Ku­sano, Fukushima city’s top cri­sis man­age­ment of­fi­cial.

The city has a five-year de­con­tam­i­na­tion plan, which he said could be ex­tended.

For evac­uees, a ma­jor step for­ward may come in the next few weeks, when of­fi­cials hope to re­de­fine the evac­u­a­tion zone, pos­si­bly open­ing up some ar­eas, based on ra­di­a­tion data. De­con­tam­i­nat­ing earth

Ra­di­a­tion ac­cu­mu­lates in soil, plants and ex­te­rior walls of build­ings. Work­ers start clean­ing a prop­erty by wash­ing or chop­ping off tree branches and rak­ing up fallen leaves.

Then they clean out gut­ters and hose down the roof with high-pres­sure water. Next come the walls and win­dows. Fi­nally, they re­place the top­soil with fresh earth. His­tor­i­cally, the only par­al­lel sit­u­a­tion is Ch­er­nobyl, where the con­tam­i­nated area — once home to 110,000 peo­ple — re­mains off-lim­its nearly 26 years af­ter the nu­clear power plant ex­ploded.

“They aban­doned the land,” En­vi­ron­ment Min­is­ter Goshi Hosono told a meet­ing of lo­cal of­fi­cials and res­i­dents last month. “We won’t give up. The land be­longs to each vil­lage, to each res­i­dent.

“As long as there are peo­ple who want to re­turn home, we’ll do ev­ery­thing we can to help.”

In an in­ter­view with a group of re­porters, though, he con­ceded that such a mas­sive cleanup is “untested.”

Ex­perts say it may be pos­si­ble to clean up less­con­tam­i­nated ar­eas, but noth­ing is promis­ing in the most con­tam­i­nated places, where any im­prove­ment is quickly wiped out by ra­di­a­tion fall­ing from trees, moun­tains and other un­treated ar­eas.

Most of the clean­ing is tak­ing place in less-con­tam­i­nated ar­eas, but the gov­ern­ment also launched pi­lot projects in 12 dis­tricts around the plant, most of them highly con­tam­i­nated, in De­cem­ber.

Ma­jor con­struc­tion com­pa­nies and oth­ers won gov­ern­ment con­tracts to ex­per­i­ment with meth­ods to re­move and com­pact the over­whelm­ing vol­ume of waste. Those found ef­fec­tive will be cho­sen for fur­ther cleanup start­ing in April.

The dozens of meth­ods range from the rel­a­tively ba­sic — soil re­moval and wash­ing and scrub­bing sur­faces — to the more ex­per­i­men­tal, such as us­ing chem­i­cals to re­move ra­dioac­tive ce­sium from farm­land, and dry ice to get it out of roads and other hard sur­faces.

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