Cleaning up Minami-Soma

Cleaning up Minami-Soma A JAEA official with interpreter by his side explains his agency’s plan for restoration of the environment in Fukushima. EDDIE LANDSBERG

MINAMI-SOMA —

A lot of people forget the true story of the current disaster in Fukushima. It began with a very large earthquake (big enough to tilt the Earth on its axis, shorten the day by a millisecond, and change the geographic land mass of Japan) and was followed a half hour later by a HUGE tsunami that was about 10 stories high in some places.

Of course, among other things it crashed into the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Whether or not even the best plant in the world would have had a chance and whether or not the crisis was handled properly is taken for granted by most people. But no matter who’s to blame, one thing is apparent—there’s a huge mess to clean up.

To learn more about the challenges, I was lucky to be invited to a decontamination tour of that included 33 panelists, agency representatives and participants of the International Symposium of Reclaiming the Environment co-sponsored by the Japan Atomic Energy Agency (JAEA) and Cabinet Ministry, which I had attended the day before.

A detailed analysis of so much information intake is beyond the scope of a short word essay, but I can describe the experience.

Among other things, we were taken to the site of a nursing home in Minami-Soma that was engulfed by the huge tsunami on March 11. Many of the residents were bed-ridden or elderly and had to be evacuated and died within days, weeks and months after their evacuation for a wide variety of reasons, including pneumonia, brain infarctions and stress from the moving itself.

As we left the bus, we were told that we could look ahead and see the ocean. We could, but it was far enough away that the idea of the place being engulfed by a tsunami was only imaginable in retrospect—and barely. Further, for what seemed like a mile or so after, there were still small fishing boats scattered around the place.

Back at the home, there was a table full of memorial flowers and water bottles (a Japanese tradition) at the entrance—the red paint on the wall to mark rooms that were checked to make sure the residents had been evacuated, the incredible amounts of mud. Out of respect, I did not photograph the government and foreign representatives from Russia, France, Germany, Finland, the IAEA, JAEA and other organizations from around the world, but many were driven to tears and looked devastated by the time they got back to the bus.

After the tour, we were taken to a decontamination site (the same the IAEA visited a few days earlier) and were shown the some of the clean up challenges. On the way we were shown the refuse disposal piles. The day previously, the JAEA had explained the enormous challenge of figuring out to do with enormous piles of separated garbage that you can’t burn, and nobody wants in their back yard.

Although members of the delegation were top nuclear safety officials and experts from around the world, it was not necessary to clean off, change clothes or wear radiation proof suits. In fact, while barely 30 kilometers from the plant, we all had bento and one American from a company specializing in decontamination, bought an apple and was eating it unwashed. Typically, being an American, he felt no need to remove the skin either.

The day before, I saw other representatives pigging out at an all-you-can eat breakfast buffet at the hotel lobby in Fukushima. It made me feel good. Frankly speaking, if there was a big cover-up, these guys would be in on it, and would not be putting their lives at risk.

I ate away heartily too and even brought back a small pebble to remember an epic event in my life. Furthermore, I befriended a member of a European embassy and we both observed how different the area looked in person than on the news. Very beautiful forestry. Minami-Soma apparently had also been a beach resort (the beach lost to the ocean up to the embankment.) We were co-hosted by a representative of the city, and were surprised that at the center of the town, there seemed to be a lot of traffic. The center of town seemed much larger and vibrant than on TV. The wooded area, Heartland Haramachi, was beautiful with tourist quality nature trails. We were surrounded for most of the drive by breathtaking mountainous evergreen forests.

As we stood atop a hill in front of a rustic wooden bungalow where topsoil was being removed and branches cut from trees, the JAEA rep was questioned by some of the guests and delegates who gave the impression that basically Japan was taking the right steps for the clean-up, though also seemed to engage in varying amounts of “academic debate” among themselves.

While walking back to the bus, a participant pointed out to me that for people our age, we could probably live in the area forever and die of natural causes, but that’s because our cells are dying anyway, but for children, it would be a totally different story. Likewise, throughout the conference, there was much discussion about dose reduction and ways of reclaiming the environment and there seemed a consensus that decontamination in towns like Minami-Soma will be possible… but not necessarily easy or cheap.

An overall theme of the conference was taking a “stakeholder” approach to managing the disaster, meaning that all parties involved, including national, prefectural and local officials need to work side by side with the citizens and community. As an example, authorities must set dosage safety levels that take people’s safety into account. On the other hand, members of the local community must have reasonable expectations. Working together, goals can be set that are acceptable to the communities and achievable by people cleaning them up.

One panelist pointed out that there are some parts of the world where there is up to 50mSv/yr of naturally occurring radiation, yet no detectably hire rates of cancer. The world average, in fact, is 3mSv/year, compared to the U.S.‘s 6.20mSv. Radiation occurs naturally: the question is how much is safe, and how much is the public willing to accept?

During the symposium, I also developed an awareness that although disasters like Fukushima and Chernobyl are rare, accident clean-ups are not. Presenters mentioned Los Alamos, Palomares and gave a “disturbing” reassurance that the world had a lot of practice and experience dealing with nuclear clean-ups. An entire industry, in fact, centers around it.

I left the conference with two impressions. First, that Minami-Soma and Fukushima are beautiful places, even today, and not without hope for recovery. Similar to Hiroshima, I could imagine a future where the nursing home is preserved and a Tsunami Memorial Museum is built nearby.

Second, I left with a better realization that the debate on nuclear power is beside the point. The issues are the communities and citizens, what they want, and what the future holds in store for them. The big question being, do they feel that the stakeholder approach is being put into action, or is it all talk?

Unfortunately, during the tour, we had no opportunity to meet local residents. As a writer, this no doubt will be a future mission of mine.

Author Infomation

Eddie Landsberg
Eddie Landsberg
Eddie Landsberg is a writer, musician and reviewer who's lived and taught in Japan for 17 years. He presents stories and interviews on a wide range of topics related to changing Japanese society. He's recorded three internationally distributed CDs as a Hammond organist. Among his hobbies shogi, dog training and collecting R&B.
Website: https://www.facebook.com/eddie.landsberg1
  • -1

    JapanGal

    16 Years and a specialist?

  • -3

    JapanGal

    Unfortunately, during the tour, we had no opportunity to meet local residents.

    He never left his car?

  • 1

    zichi

    There's a place in Iran, and I think also in India with radiation levels of 250 microsieverts per hour. Also in Brazil. According the last government report, in Fukushima, 6,200 sq kms are contaminated with radiation 1-5 microsieverts per hour, and a further 1,800 sq kms contaminated greater than 5 microsieverts per hour.

    The total contamination of 13,000 sq kms across 8 prefectures will cost ¥1.2 trillion according to the government.

  • -2

    johnnygogogo

    JapanGal, do you really think they would let residents lurk around a bunch of foreign delegates and express their opinions? I'm surprised he got on the tour. Either he has friends in high places or Japan Today has hit really hit the big league.

  • 1

    samurairunning

    Eddie does the job of conveying his experience very well. I'm looking forward to follow up articles. You're a "specialist" in my book!

  • 0

    SquidBert

    @zichi

    The place you are talking about is most likely Ramsar, with a backround radiation of 260 miliGray per year (not hour) If we take 260 miliGray and divide by 365 days and 24 hours we get roughly 30 microGray per hour.

    Now to convert to Sievert If we assume a conversion factor (Wr) of 1 (as for cesium) we get a dose of 30 micro Sievert per hour .

    But in fact the radiation source in Ramsar is mostly radium, which emits mostly alpha particles. Which gives us a much lower conversion factor (Wr) of 0.05 which gives us the dose 1.5 micro Sievert per hour for Ramsar.

    The other places you are talking about is most likely Kerala in India and Guarapari in Brazil, which both have lower background radiation than Ramsar.

  • 1

    hatsoff

    The world average, in fact, is 3mSv/year, compared to the U.S.‘s 6.20mSv. Radiation occurs naturally: the question is how much is safe, and how much is the public willing to accept?

    Averages are pretty meaningless if you live in a hotspot. And it shouldn't be accepted by the people that just because "radiation occurs naturally" that this radiation problem should therefore be accepted. There's no need for anyone to be hysterical about the situation (which helps no one), but decontamination needs to be thorough and the will of the people needs to be firm. I can see the clean up being compromised down the road by talk of averages and naturalness.

    and there seemed a consensus that decontamination in towns like Minami-Soma will be possible… but not necessarily easy or cheap

    So save money and effort by talking about averages and naturalness, and find acceptance among the people by saying it often enough? I hope not.

  • 1

    Papa_will_preach

    I saw other representatives pigging out at an all-you-can eat breakfast buffet at the hotel lobby in Fukushima. It made me feel good. Frankly speaking, if there was a big cover-up, these guys would be in on it, and would not be putting their lives at risk.

    They are old.

    Radiation occurs naturally: the question is how much is safe, and how much is the public willing to accept?

    Eddie, its been seven months now. Will you please, for the love of God, get a friggen clue? We are talking about radioactive isotopes that are most certainly NOT naturally occuring on Earth for billions of years now. And we are mostly certainly NOT talking about radioactive solid rock buried in the dirt, but rather teeny tiny particles that you can breathe, drink with your water and that get absorbed into your food, and from there get transerred to specific organs like your thyroid or heart, or to your bones.

    They say Cornwall has high natural backround radiation. They also say Cornwall has a high population of unnattractive women. Well Eddie, I would still rather be in Cornwall with my baby than here right now.

    The day previously, the JAEA had explained the enormous challenge of figuring out to do with enormous piles of separated garbage that you can’t burn, and nobody wants in their back yard.

    I could solve that problem with a car, a few tanks of gasoline, two weeks and a mandate to purchase undeveloped mountain land whether the owners want to sell or not. Its called eminent domain plus some footwork.

  • 0

    Papa_will_preach

    Second, I left with a better realization that the debate on nuclear power is beside the point.

    Like hell it is! It may not be top priority compared with other issues right now, but it is absolutlely a part of the point! If not for the worries about radioactive contamination, I would have volunteered to help. A lot of my free time might have used up helping out these last few months. But nuclear power is at the heart of why they don't have my help, and why similar disasters will also see me staying at home.

  • 0

    SquidBert

    Moderator:

    Could we please have a fact check or reference on the following part of the article?

    One panelist pointed out that there are some parts of the world where there is up to 50Sv/yr of naturally occurring radiation, yet no detectably hire rates of cancer.

    Or should that possibly be 50 mSV/yr?

  • 1

    johnnygogogo

    PappWillPreach I think he's referring to agreement of standards between community and officials. How much is safe vs. How much is ideal vs. How much is possible to clean up. There were protests in the 1980s over nuclear clean-ups in the US and the agencies finally got together with the residents and negotiated clean-up standards. I think that's what is being referred to.

    I think there's a strong point. The people in a position to demand a plant be shut down are members of the local community, not people half way across the world. The people in a position to stop construction of local plants are also local residents. The plants are usually built after deals are cut with local politicians.

    Moderator: 50Sv is probably a type-o. I'd add m.

  • 0

    hatsoff

    Just putting the Mod's comment to SquidBert's comment (not trying to be smart):

    Moderator:

    Could we please have a fact check or reference on the following part of the article?

    One panelist pointed out that there are some parts of the world where there is up to 50Sv/yr of naturally occurring radiation, yet no detectably hire rates of cancer.

    Or should that possibly be 50 mSV/yr?

    Moderator: 50Sv is probably a type-o. I'd add m.

    Moderator: The typo has been fixed.

  • -2

    YongYang

    Jeeesuz. AGAIN. Naturally occurring radiation does NOT have the same affect on living tissues as man made isotopes such as strontium-90, cesium-137 et al which do more damage especially when sat inside tissue / marrow as internal emitters. Expert? In WHAT? Certainly not anything to do with radiation.

  • 0

    pawatan

    Expert? In WHAT? Certainly not anything to do with radiation.

    YongYang, I am quite sure you aren't either, so what makes you more of an authority than Mr Landsberg? Or do you actually have expert knowledge of the effects of radiation on the human body - not just something you read on a blog?

  • 1

    johnnygogogo

    YongYang -- You are aware that about half of all radiation exposure in the US comes from man made sources in particular medical waste (but people are willing to accept it), and furthermore there's a thing called skin block which people are advised to wear for a reason? In addition, radon occurs naturally in the soil in many places and is sometimes referred to as a silent killer... its a Class A Carcinogen. Radon causes about 100 times more deaths that carbon monoxide poisoning and its most definitely not man made!!! According to the EPA, 20,000 people will die this year from inhaling it.

  • 2

    SquidBert

    @pawatan

    Most of us writing here are not experts, some of us have some knowledge. And I have seen comments from one or two who have really good knowledge of the field. The thing is that none of us claim to be experts, we are just the public commenting on what we read. I think however that someone who writes a story for a column with the name "JT Experts" should show at least some level of expertise.
    I have great respect for Mr. Landsberg, but he is not an expert in this area. As most of the story was really more about telling about his experience, the expertise part really does not matter that much. I just wish he would have steered clear of making his own personal comparisons to other type of radiation hazards and then there was that unfortunate type where he claimed that 50Sv/yr (fixed in article now) was a safe dose, which it most certainly is not.

  • 0

    johnnygogogo

    @squidbert As the sentence in the paragraph begins "One panelist pointed out..." is it possible that it may not necessarily be his own opinion, but something he heard on the panel? The panelist said "50mSv occurs around the world," -- The next sentence is unclear whether its his opinion or the panelist's, but then says a significantly lower amount is normal (If its HIS opinion, its a fact check, as that is true, if its the panelist's opinion its not his), but the CONCLUSION of the paragraph is that what really manners is the opinion of the community, which the author states was one of the themes of the conference, so I don't see how he's trying to be an expert in nuclear energy. He concludes the article in a tone which to me is skeptical saying that he'd like to hear what the locals actually feel.

  • 0

    SquidBert

    @johnny555

    Yes I considered that to. But if he new the panelist opinion to be false, he should have pointed it out or not quoted the panelist at all. As many readers already have major problems understand what levels are safe and which are dangerous. We should try to avoid this sort of misinformation getting spread around.

    And also, the moderator has stated that it was a typo.

  • -1

    YongYang

    @Johnny: you are aware that this post is about JAPAN. QED.

  • 0

    johnnygogogo

    @YongYang Exactly, and there is radon and UV light in Japan too... Visit Ofuna....

  • -3

    YongYang

    @Johnny best stay in Vasey, no radiation there, but UV light does not in any way or form equate to radioactive contamination from isotopes such as strontium 90 et al. If you don't know the rules, don't play.

Login to leave a comment

OR
  • 営業/建設機械  

    営業/建設機械  
    MB Japan 株式会社、埼玉県
    給与:給与要相談 歩合制 給与参考例・・・2013年度営業職月給平均 45万円  
  • TOEICインストラクター

    TOEICインストラクター
    Berkeley House Language Center / バークレーハウス語学センター、東京都
    給与:時給 3,000円 相談可
  • TOEFL・IELTSインストラクター

    TOEFL・IELTSインストラクター
    Berkeley House Language Center / バークレーハウス語学センター、東京都
    給与:時給 3,500円 相談可
  • 海外留学担当者

    海外留学担当者
    Berkeley House Language Center / バークレーハウス語学センター、東京都
    給与:月給 25万円 ~ 35万円 相談可
  • PR and Communication Specialist

    PR and Communication Specialist
    Italian Chamber of Commerce in Japan、東京都
    給与:給与についての記載なし

More in Opinions

View all

View all