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.
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.
Opinions on the trip’s effectiveness vary among participants, but in the six months since, not a single foreign company has been employed in Japan’s cleanup, according to the trip’s participants and Japan’s Environment Ministry.
“Japan has a rich history in nuclear energy, but as you know, the U.S. has a much more diverse experience in dealing with the cleanup of very complicated nuclear processing facilities. We’ve been cleaning it up since World War II,” said Casey Bunker, a director at RJ Lee, a scientific consulting company based in Pennsylvania that took part in the visit.
“There was a little of, ‘Hey, bring your tools over and show us how it works.’ But they ultimately wanted to do it themselves, to fix things themselves,” Bunker said. “There didn’t seem to be a lot of interest in a consultative relationship moving forward.”
Japanese officials said adapting overseas technologies presented a particular challenge.
“Even if a method works overseas, the soil in Japan is different, for example,” said Hidehiko Nishiyama, deputy director at the Environment Ministry who is in charge of the Fukushima cleanup. “And if we have foreigners roaming around Fukushima, they might scare the old grandmas and granddads there.”
Some local residents are losing faith in the decontamination effort.
“I thought Japan was a technologically advanced country. I thought we’d be able to clean up better than this,” said Yoshiko Suganami, a legal worker who was forced to abandon her home and office 4km from the Fukushima Daiichi plant. “It’s clear the decontamination drive isn’t really about us anymore.”
Most of the clients at Suganami’s new practice in Fukushima city are also nuclear refugees who have lost their jobs and homes and are trying to avert bankruptcy. She said few expect to ever return.
Additional reporting by Makiko Inoue