The Ministry of the Environment on Dec. 21 showed a panel of experts a policy of not decontaminating most of the forests in Fukushima Prefecture that are far from residential areas and where people do not usually enter.
The ministry came up with the policy because an increase in airborne radiation levels in residential areas brought on by the spread of radioactive materials has not been confirmed and because removing fallen leaves could have adverse effects such as the outflow of top soil. None of the panel members had objections over the policy, and the environment ministry is to revise its decontamination guidelines accordingly.
Forests account for 70 percent of Fukushima Prefecture's total area. The government was meant to remove fallen leaves and the like from forests within 20 meters from living areas as well as from areas where people routinely enter for activities such as mushroom cultivation and camping. But no decision had been made on what to do for other areas.
According to the ministry, in the areas where it plans not to decontaminate, about 80 percent of radioactive materials that adhered to leaves and branches at the time of the 2011 nuclear meltdowns have remained in surface soil and the spread of radioactive materials affecting airborne radiation levels in living areas has not been confirmed. Furthermore, the ministry said that any outflow of radioactive materials triggered by rainfall and other factors has not been confirmed.
Meanwhile, if accumulated fallen leaves and the like were to be removed from a wide area, it is feared to have adverse effects such as the outflow of top soil. Because of this, the ministry deemed it appropriate to prevent fallen leaves and top soil containing radioactive materials from flowing out by installing fences and sandbags rather than decontaminating forests. At the same time, the ministry will set out to revive forests. An environment ministry official in charge said, "It is difficult to decontaminate all of the forests and there could be adverse effects from such work. We have selected the best method for local people."
The environment ministry's plan has sparked criticism and anxiety among some local residents in Fukushima Prefecture, including those in forestry cooperatives and those who are trying to return to their hometowns.
The forestry cooperative in the Fukushima Prefecture village of Iitate, whose entire population has been evacuated, has demanded the government decontaminate the forests so that it could resume its business operations after the evacuation order is lifted. Forests account for 80 percent of the total area of the village. Forestry cooperative chief Chohei Sato, 64, said, "There are places where workers cannot enter because radiation levels are high. Unless they are decontaminated, we won't be able to engage in forestry like the way we did before the nuclear accident."
Under the government policy, on the other hand, the government is to call on foresters and other relevant people to maintain forests by doing such things as thinning in areas where airborne radiation levels are 2.5 microsieverts per hour or lower -- levels that do not require controlling of radiation exposure doses. That's because if weeds and the like grow in forests, they are expected to be effective in preventing radioactive soil from flowing out to living areas.
Kimio Akimoto, 68-year-old chief of the Futaba regional forestry cooperative, said, "Workers might not come here due to anxiety over radiation. If something happens to their health, it will be the cooperative that should take responsibility for that. We do not want the government to leave it solely in the hands of people on the spot."
The Fukushima Prefecture village of Katsurao located in a mountainous area in the Abukuma Highland is seeking to have the evacuation order lifted in the spring of 2016. A 77-year-old woman, who is thinking of cultivating vegetables in the village after the evacuation order is lifted, said, "I really want the government to decontaminate so that we can live without fear. But (forgoing decontamination) cannot be helped if time and money are needed. If that is the case, I want them instead to properly improve our living strongholds."
The government says it will install prevention fences and the like if the outflow of radioactive soil is feared to affect living areas. Hidenori Endo, 73, who serves as administrative head of the Shimokatsurao district in the Katsurao village, said, "I wonder if we can completely prevent the outflow of soil. There are limitations as mountains are extensive."