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On Location Video: The dirty work of cleaning up Fukushima

Japan’s multibillion-dollar radiological cleanup is marred by employment law violations, shoddy working practices and a shortage of people willing to work.

other workers point to a much deeper underworld involvement in the Fukushima cleanup.

An investigation by the Health and Welfare Ministry also revealed widespread violations of health and safety laws, with workers being sent into hazardous areas with insufficient training or protective gear. About half of the 242 contractors involved were reprimanded, but no legal action was taken — a move that would have delayed work that is already well behind schedule.

Nakamura isn’t surprised by the lack of action against unscrupulous employers. “This whole decontamination project is not about improving the lives of ordinary people,” he said. “It’s all about profits for the big contractors. Lots of taxpayers’ money is going into their pockets, and nothing is being done about it.

“This is a Japan problem. Here, the people who work the hardest end up with the least.”

Ghost towns

Koji Sakuma, who leads a small crew of cleanup workers in Miyakoji, said here, as in dozens of other places across Fukushima prefecture, the disaster had torn families and communities apart.

Of the district’s 3,000 residents, fewer than 500 remain, many of them elderly people who are at less risk of developing radiation-related cancers in the future. Children’s voices have not been heard here for two years.

“People in their 50s and 60s who have work to do are living here, but their children and other young people are in temporary housing in places like [nearby] Koriyama and Funehiki,” Sakuma said. “About 80 percent of the local population is leading that kind of life.”

For Nakamura, the work held the double attraction of a slightly higher daily wage than he had been paid at his call-center job in Tokyo, and the chance to play a part in the revival of Fukushima, the place of his birth.

But is his and other workers’ desire to make communities near the plant inhabitable misplaced?

Attempting to keep radiation levels down in residential areas could prove futile, according to Ian Fairlie, a London-based independent consultant on radioactivity in the environment. Fairlie, who had just returned from a conference on the Fukushima crisis in New York, said there was evidence that some areas recorded the same levels of radioactive cesium-137 just 24 hours after they had supposedly been contaminated.

“This was found too after Chernobyl, where cleanups were largely ineffectual,” he said. “[Decontamination] is good for reassurance and official statements, but poor for actual dose reduction. I think the 20 km zone and other areas will have to remain permanently evacuated. That will be awful for the [tens of thousands of people] affected, but I can't really see any other way.”

Other experts agree that the work has so far been less successful than anticipated, but are more optimistic about the safety of these areas.

Last year the Japan Atomic Energy Agency (JAEA), which conducts research into nuclear energy, completed pilot cleanups in Fukushima and passed its findings on the science, logistics and cost of the operation to the Environment Ministry.

“It’s clear that [ministry] officials are finding this much harder than they expected,” said Shinichi Nakayama, deputy director of the JAEA’s Fukushima Environmental Safety Center. “No one has experience of undertaking a cleanup of this size. It isn’t something you can do by following a manual. It’s a massive technical challenge.”

While Fukushima’s highly contaminated forests will remain off-limits for some time — cutting down trees and removing soil could cause dangerous landslides — Nakayama said follow-up monitoring of areas decontaminated during the JAEA’s pilot scheme showed that none had experienced a rise in radiation after remediation work.

Aside from securing enough workers, the biggest obstacle to progress is finding plots to store waste before it is finally disposed of. There’s an urgent need, Nakayama said, to centralize waste conditioning, and establish interim storage sites and disposal facilities.

According to one estimate, the Fukushima decontamination project will produce at least 30 million cubic meters of waste — enough to fill the 55,000-seat Tokyo Dome stadium more than 20 times.

Questions are also being raised about the government-set radiation target. Currently, evacuees are being advised to wait until radiation at ground level has been lowered to 0.23 microsieverts an hour. That translates to one millisievert a year — assuming that people spend about half their time indoors — on top of normal background dose, and is the maximum limit for the public set by the International Commission on Radiological Protection. By contrast, natural background radiation around the world is around 2.4 millisieverts a year. The acceptable dose for Japanese nuclear plant workers is 100 millisieverts over five years.

Cumulative exposure to 100 millisieverts raises the risk of death from cancer by 0.5 percent over an individual’s lifetime, according to the government-affiliated National Institute of Radiological Sciences (NIRS) in Tokyo. This means that for every 10,000 people, an additional 50 will die from the disease, above the approximately 2,000 who would die from the disease normally.

In a recent report, the World Health Organization estimated that residents in the most affected areas of Fukushima Prefecture received doses ranging from 12 to 25 millisieverts in the first 12 months after the disaster.

Radiation experts disagree over the possible health consequences when the cumulative dose is lower than 100 millisieverts. “We are not yet clear if there is a higher cancer risk,” said Kazuo Sakai, director of the research center for radiation protection at NIRS. “It is said that health effects are only evident when exposure is over 100 millisieverts, but based on the cumulative doses they received, people in Fukushima did not get enough radiation to threaten their health.”

Japan’s previous government, led by the Democratic Party of Japan, set an initial safe target of 20 millisieverts a year by 2014, with one millisievert a year its long-term objective. But it is the latter, much lower level that has become the accepted benchmark among Fukushima residents.

“The one millisievert a year limit for the general public … is a very conservative figure,” Sakai said. “People are treating the one millisievert a year limit with too much caution. They think that if they go over that then they are in trouble, as if it’s the dividing line between safety and danger.”

Nakayama, who has been working on the environmental remediation of Fukushima since the nuclear accident, agrees that the one-millisievert target was overly cautious. “But now that it’s been established as the target, it would be impossible to tell residents in Fukushima to accept even a slightly higher level of exposure.”

The scientific debate means little to the workers on the ground, who have taken center stage in the Fukushima saga since the plant’s three most badly damaged reactors were brought to a stable state known as “cold shutdown” more than a year ago.

The financial cost of the cleanup continues to rise. The operator of the nuclear plant, Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO), recently doubled its estimate of the cost of decontaminating neighborhoods and compensating victims to 10 trillion yen ($105 billion). But according to the Japan Center for Economic Research, a non-profit, independent think tank, the cost of decontaminating Fukushima prefecture’s residential districts alone could soar to an estimated $600 billion.

While the authorities ponder the financial costs, tens of thousands of black oil-based sacks filled with contaminated dirt, grass and rubble lie scattered in fields and on roadsides across Fukushima, sometimes just yards from schools and homes. It will not be moved until the government secures permanent storage sites in the face of opposition from communities that object to having tons of radioactive waste dumped on their doorsteps.

The government had set a completion date of March next year, but the slow pace of the cleanup means meeting that deadline will be next to impossible. Those among the 160,000 nuclear evacuees hoping to return home can do nothing except wait.