Two years have passed since the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant disaster and international interest in its impact is beginning to wane. However, that impact continues to reverberate — and not only in global public debate about the future of nuclear energy. More than a hundred thousand people remain displaced by the accident, some having lost family, homes, possessions and even the desire to live.
Japan’s nuclear industry, regulators and government have a responsibility to explain clearly why science and technology could not minimize the risk and consequences of such an accident in a geologically vulnerable country such as Japan; why an unreasonably costly cleanup is being carried out in areas of low contamination, where negligible impact on public health is anticipated; and why no well-defined and operational waste-management system has been established.
The lessons learned may help not only to reduce the risk of future accidents, but also to facilitate recovery in areas around the world that have been contaminated by radioactive or other toxic substances.
Japan has a strong international reputation when it comes to managing natural disasters. However, the “perfect storm” of the largest earthquake and tsunami since industrialization, and the resulting meltdown of three reactor cores at the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant, went beyond any scenario previously envisaged.
Japan’s national government and local communities had no emergency plan for the situation that they faced in the contaminated areas, resulting in ad hoc responses marked by inefficiency and poor communication, particularly with regard to radiological risk.
Despite such problems, effective measures were implemented to evacuate those at risk and limit the potential hazard from consumption of contaminated foodstuffs. Local communities initiated immediate decontamination of sensitive areas outside evacuated zones (for example, kindergartens and schools), in parallel with efforts by the Japan Atomic Energy Agency (JAEA) to develop the technology for remediation within these zones.
The resulting demonstration projects established a base of knowledge to support more effective planning and implementation of stepwise regional remediation in terms of site characterization, cleanup technology and temporary waste management.
Adequate planning is particularly important because remediation on so large a scale — and in a densely populated area with such complex topography and land use — has never been attempted before. With a view to building local understanding and providing information to the international community, the output of this work is being summarized in a user-friendly, Web-based communication platform that is now being developed.
Decontamination work leads to a huge amount of waste, which needs to be managed — collected, transported, sorted, stored, reduced in volume, prepared for disposal and, eventually, placed in permanent disposal facilities — at the local, regional and national levels. However, due to pressure to allow the rapid return of displaced residents, the JAEA demonstration projects proceeded only as far as establishing temporary storage facilities, intended as stopgaps until centralized waste conditioning, interim storage and disposal facilities were available.
The waste volumes are so large — estimated to be 30 million cubic meters (enough to fill the 55,000-seat Tokyo Dome more than 20 times) — and the material so complex that the final steps of management need to be carefully optimized, even if the main contaminant is relatively short-lived radioactive cesium.