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Fukushima laden with piles of radioactive soil that can't be moved into storage

Masaaki Sakai faces his home, which remains standing in the Fukushima Prefecture village of Iitate, on Feb. 15, 2017. In some spots the level of radiation exceeds 1 microsievert per hour, and Sakai has decided to have the structure demolished. (Mainichi)

FUKUSHIMA -- As decontamination planned in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster nears an end this fiscal year, focus is shifting to the massive amount of radioactively tainted soil that has piled up during decontamination work. But the construction of interim storage facilities that are supposed to hold this waste within Fukushima Prefecture for up to 30 years before it is finally disposed of has been delayed.

    As of the end of February, only about 20 percent of the 16,000 hectares earmarked for interim storage has been acquired through land contracts. It thus appears inevitable that provisional and onsite storage that was only supposed to last for three years will drag on for a long time. The situation casts doubt on the prospects of finding a final resting place for the waste outside Fukushima Prefecture within 30 years.

    Six years after the disaster at the Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant, the Fukushima Prefecture village of Iitate remains completely evacuated. With the exception of a so-called "difficult to return zone" in the south of the village, the central government plans to lift the evacuation order upon completion of decontamination work at the end of March.

    Masaaki Sakai, 39, who now resides in the city of Fukushima, has a home in the Komiya district of Iitate, right next to the village's "difficult to return" zone. A dosimeter during a recent visit showed the area around the 60-year-old, snow-covered farmhouse stood at more than 1 microsievert per hour. The level equates to more than 5 millisieverts per year -- five times the 1 millisievert exposure limit for a regular person.

    Sakai points out that level of radiation is sometimes higher. "Today the level is low because there is snow," he says. In the near future he plans to have his home pulled down, as the deadline for applying for the government to cover the cost of doing so is approaching.

    "Even if I want to return to Iitate, if they say, 'Decide now' then the only thing I can do is decide not to return," he murmurs.

    One of the reasons behind Sakai's decision not to return is the radioactively contaminated soil that remains in the village. Walking around the village, one can see mounds with green covers over them, concealing flexible containers that hold contaminated soil. According to the Ministry of the Environment, the amount of tainted soil stored temporarily like this, as of the end of January, totals roughly 2.4 million cubic meters for the village of Iitate alone, or enough to fill the Tokyo Dome baseball stadium twice.

    So far, however, only about 6,000 cubic meters of soil have been transported to interim storage facilities, while the amount due to be transported next fiscal year stands at about 22,000 cubic meters. At this pace, under a simple calculation, it would take over 100 years to transport all of the waste to interim storage facilities.

    "There's no way I'm going to live surrounded by mountains of contaminated soil," Sakai says.

    Makeshift storage of radioactive soil in areas that have not been evacuated also looks likely to be prolonged. In areas that aren't under evacuation orders, it is the local municipalities, not the government, that handle the decontamination work. In five municipalities including the cities of Fukushima and Koriyama, the contaminated soil left after decontamination work is mostly buried onsite.

    Six years have passed since the outbreak of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, and in many cases people have asked for the waste to be removed so they can extend or rebuild their homes or resume farming activities, but the delay in building interim storage facilities means the only solution for the time being is to change the spot where the waste is buried.

    It costs several hundred thousand yen to rebury waste in a single case, but until now the Ministry of the Environment has not allowed funds to be used for the reburying of such waste, on the premise that it is supposed to be stored for only a short period of time. Local bodies have still billed the central government by quietly tacking on the cost to the fee for other decontamination work, but this will become more difficult to do next fiscal year when decontamination work is completed.

    In January, the Ministry of the Environment adopted a new policy of granting funds for the reburying of waste if the original location hindered the construction of a new home. An official at one local body commented that the move was a relief, but there are outstanding issues. As a rule, the government collectively bills Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO), operator of the Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant, for the cost of decontamination work, but it is unclear whether TEPCO has to pay for the reburial of tainted soil.

    Separately, decontamination work has also been carried out in prefectures besides Fukushima -- extending to 57 municipalities in seven prefectures, including Tochigi and Miyagi. The amount of contaminated soil in these cases stands at about 320,000 cubic meters. In about 95 percent of cases, the soil is stored onsite. But since interim storage facilities are designed for contaminated soil from Fukushima Prefecture alone, it has not even been decided what should be done with this waste.

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