Cleaning up 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.