In addition, there are no concrete plans about storing the vast amounts of contaminated soil and foliage the cleanup is generating, which the environment ministry estimates will amount to at least 29 million cubic meters. The contaminated dirt lies in bags on roadsides, in abandoned fields and on the coastline, where experts say they are at risk from high waves or another tsunami.
“This isn’t decontamination — it’s sweeping up dirt and leaves and absolutely irresponsible,” said Tomoya Yamauchi, an expert in radiation measurement at Kobe University who has been helping Fukushima communities test the effectiveness of various decontamination methods. “Japan has started up its big public works machine, and the cleanup has become an end in itself. It’s a way for the government to appear to be doing something for Fukushima.”
In some of the more heavily contaminated parts of Fukushima, which covers about 259km3, the central government aims to reduce radiation exposure levels to below 20 millisieverts a year by 2014, a level the government says is safe for the general public. But experts doubt whether this is achievable, especially with current cleanup methods.
After some recent bad press, the central government has promised to step up checks of the decontamination work. “We will not betray the trust of the local communities,” Shinji Inoue, the environment vice minister, said Monday. There had been high hopes about the government’s disaster reconstruction plan. It was announced four months after the March 2011 disaster, and officials declared that Japan would draw on the most advanced decontamination know-how possible.
But confusion over who would conduct and pay for the cleanup slowed the government response. It took nine months for the central government to decide that it would take charge of decontamination work in 11 of the heaviest-contaminated towns and cities in Fukushima leaving the rest for local governments.
In October, the state-backed research organization, the Japan Atomic Energy Agency, announced that it was soliciting new decontamination technology from across the country. By early November, the agency had identified 25 technologies that its own tests showed removed harmful cesium from the environment.
A new system to trap, filter and recycle contaminated runoff, developed by the local machinery maker Fukushima Komatsu Forklift, was one of technologies. But since then, the company has not been called on to participate in the state-led cleanup.
“For the big general contractors, it’s all about the bottom line,” said Masao Sakai, an executive at the company. “New technology is available to prevent harmful runoff, but they stick to the same old methods.”
The Japanese government also made an initial effort to contact foreign companies for decontamination support. It invited 32 companies from the United States that specialize in remediation technologies like strip-painting and waste minimization, to show off their expertise to Japanese government officials, experts and companies involved in the cleanup.