EDITORIAL: More data needed to make decontamination work effective

January 09, 2013

Decontamination work is in progress in areas affected by the March 2011 accident at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, but cases have been uncovered of workers dumping contaminated soil, vegetation and water into nearby rivers or other places without properly collecting them.

The shoddy practices in decontamination projects under the direct control of the government have been found in municipalities where radiation levels are relatively high due to their proximity to the crippled plant.

Such sloppy work is not only unconscionable in itself, but it also shows insensitivity to the feelings of the evacuees, including those who are preparing to go home when the evacuation order is lifted.

The Environment Ministry has been giving virtual carte blanche to the general contractors that were awarded the cleanup projects. This probably can't be helped, as the ministry must rely on those contractors to secure manpower for the job. That said, however, we believe the ministry should be monitoring the work much more closely by seeking help from local governments and private organizations.

Cleanup workers are required to follow strict decontamination procedures, but some have been quoted as saying, "We'll never complete our task on time if we follow the rules."

But general contractors and their subcontractors are supposed to have examined and understood what the project entails before signing the contracts.

If unexpected problems arise after work has begun, they should bring these matters to the attention of the ministry or whomever they received the contract from. One problem is that radiation levels are not dropping in certain areas. Another problem is that additional manpower is required, but hiring more workers isn't financially viable.

Thinking about those problems, we are reminded anew of the huge scale of contamination caused by the Fukushima nuclear disaster.

It is impossible to recover the pre-disaster environment, and it is unrealistic to think that all affected areas can be decontaminated.

While considering the hopes of the residents, the government should decide which areas to target and the level of thoroughness in the decontamination work.

For example, the government has yet to decide its policies on decontaminating forests, which cover 70 percent of Fukushima Prefecture.

Since the start of the decontamination projects, the emphasis has been placed on private homes, farmland, roads and other places associated with people's day-to-day lives. As for neighboring forests, 20 meters from the periphery has been established as the rough limit for decontamination work.

Last summer, a panel of experts appointed by the Environment Ministry said that it plans to examine decontamination work in forests based on a research report which read, "Since only a small amount of radioactive materials flow out from forests, there is little necessity to decontaminate all of their areas." But the Fukushima prefectural government expressed its opposition to the idea.

Residents in the prefecture argued quite rightly that forests are very much a part of their daily lives, and that living near contaminated forests will put them under tremendous mental stress. On the other hand, some residents are calling for aid that will enable them to start new lives elsewhere because they are aware of the obvious limits to decontaminating forests.

Making appropriate decisions requires objective data.

How far did the radiation level drop after decontamination? Which decontamination methods work well? What topography and vegetation prevent the radiation level from dropping? We need to deepen our understanding of the issue by collecting data from various areas and heeding the opinions of experts.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Jan. 9

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