The decontamination crews at a deserted elementary school here are at the forefront of what Japan says is the most ambitious radiological cleanup the world has seen, one that promised to draw on cutting-edge technology from across the globe.
But much of the work at the Naraha-Minami Elementary School, about 19km from the ravaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, tells another story. For eight hours a day, construction workers blast buildings with water, cut grass, and shovel dirt and foliage into big black plastic bags — which, with nowhere to go, dot Naraha’s landscape like funeral mounds.
More than a year and a half since the nuclear crisis, much of Japan’s post-Fukushima cleanup remains primitive, slapdash and bereft of the cleanup methods lauded by government scientists as effective in removing harmful radioactive cesium from the environment.
Local businesses that responded to a government call to research and develop decontamination methods have found themselves largely left out. American and other foreign companies with proven expertise in environmental remediation, invited to Japan in June to show off their technologies, have similarly found little scope to participate.
Recent reports in the local media of cleanup crews dumping contaminated soil and leaves into rivers has focused attention on the sloppiness of the cleanup.
“What’s happening on the ground is a disgrace,” said Akifumi Shiga, chief executive of Shiga Toso, a refurbishing company based in Iwaki, Fukushima. The company developed a more effective and safer way to remove cesium from concrete without using water, which could repollute the environment. “We’ve been ready to help for ages, but they say they’ve got their own way of cleaning up,” he said.
Shiga Toso’s technology was tested and identified by government scientists as “fit to deploy immediately,” but it has been used only at two small locations, including a concrete drain at the Naraha-Minami school.
Instead, both the central and local governments have handed over much of the 1 trillion-yen (approx. US$11.37 billion) decontamination effort to Japan’s largest construction companies. The politically connected companies have little radiological cleanup expertise, and critics say they have cut corners to employ primitive — even potentially hazardous — techniques.
The construction companies have the great advantage of available manpower. Here in Naraha, about 1,500 cleanup workers are deployed every day to power-spray buildings, scrape soil off fields, and remove fallen leaves and undergrowth from forests and mountains, according to an official at the Maeda Corp., which is in charge of the cleanup. That number, the official said, will soon rise to 2,000, a large deployment rarely seen on even large-sale projects like dams and bridges.
The construction companies suggest new technologies might work, but are not necessarily cost-effective.
“In such a big undertaking, cost-effectiveness becomes very important,” said Takeshi Nishikawa, an executive based in Fukushima for the Kashima Corp., Japan’s largest construction company. The company is in charge of the cleanup in the city of Tamura, a part of which lies within the 19km exclusion zone. “We bring skills and expertise to the project,” Nishikawa said.
Kashima also built the reactor buildings for all six reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi plant, leading some critics to question why control of the cleanup effort has been left to companies with deep ties to the nuclear industry. Also worrying, industry experts say, are cleanup methods used by the construction companies that create loose contamination that can become airborne or enter the water. At many sites, contaminated runoff from cleanup projects are not fully recovered and are being released into the environment, multiple people involved in the decontamination work said.