An International Atomic Energy Agency team is urging Japan to temper public expectations that decontamination work near the devastated Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant will quickly bring radiation levels with the national legal limit.
The team said in a report that there is a gap between what the ongoing cleanup operation can achieve and the expectations of residents in communities impacted by the nuclear disaster.
In the report, compiled on Oct. 21, the IAEA mission said most residents expected cleanup in their communities to lower contamination to an annual dose of 1 millisievert, the nation’s safety limit.
But the team said a reading of up to 20 millisieverts is acceptable under international standards in areas where cleanup is under way, citing recommendations from international bodies such as the International Commission on Radiological Protection and the World Health Organization.
It urged the Japanese government to better educate the public that an annual dose of 1 millisievert is the long-term goal, and that that level cannot be reached in the short term through cleanup work alone.
The 1-millisievert yardstick is the legal annual dose for people living in a natural environment, excluding doses from medical X-rays and other sources.
Juan Carlos Lentijo, who led the IAEA mission involving a team of 13 experts, told a news conference on Oct. 21 that the Japanese government should find an optimal balance between the costs and the benefits, with a target of achieving a dose of 20 millisieverts or less.
The IAEA team has been in Fukushima Prefecture since Oct. 14 to observe the progress of decontamination work in areas surrounding the plant and identify challenges facing officials dealing with the nuclear crisis.
The team's report, which directed eight points of advice to Japan, said by offering the public a realistic picture of decontamination and avoiding unnecessary steps to lower radiation levels, the nation can reallocate funds for this effort to restoring vital infrastructure to improve living conditions.
It said the IAEA, and possibly the international scientific community, would back Japan in this "challenging task" in getting the public to accept a step-by-step approach to decontamination.
After the accident unfolded at the plant in March 2011 following the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami, the government ordered the evacuation of residents in communities with an annual dose of 20 millisieverts or more.
The government’s decontamination work aims at bringing radiation levels in the heavily contaminated areas to within 20 millisieverts a year to allow residents to return and eventually to “1 millisievert or less” as a long-term goal.
Some local governments agreed that achieving the 1 millisievert a year target through cleanup work alone is not realistic.
In Date, Fukushima Prefecture, the city government told the IAEA team that there would be little progress in rebuilding efforts if it adhered to the 1-millisievert yardstick.
“It will be costly, require a lot more manpower and more time,” a city official said.
Radiation levels at some sites in the city measured several millisieverts a year.
But a prefectural government official handling decontamination operation said such a level should be acceptable from a rebuilding viewpoint.
“An annual dose of 1 millisievert is a targeted long-term goal,” said the official.
But most residents are intent on lowering the level to 1 millisievert a year, which they believe ensures their safety.
Most expressed their discontent when officials explained that decontamination work did not reduce radiation levels to within 1 millisievert a year at some sites at a meeting for residents in the Miyakoji district in Tamura, also in Fukushima Prefecture, on Oct. 14.
The central government completed cleanup in the district in June. Although it planned to allow residents to return to the district by lifting the evacuation order on Nov. 1, it is heeding their concerns and set to delay the timetable until next spring.
The district was originally part of the no-entry zone, an area within a radius of 20 kilometers from the crippled plant.
The U.N. agency also called for a realistic approach to cleanup in a report it compiled after a visit to Japan in October 2011. The central government plans to spend 5 trillion yen ($50.86 billion) on decontamination work.
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