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Fukushima’s radioactive soil sparks fights, exposes the enormity and hopelessness of clean-up task via Straight.com

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Soil would fill how many B.C. Places?

In the months after the 2011 earthquake-and-tsunami catastrophe, environment ministry experts estimated that the amount of radioactive topsoil from parts of four surrounding prefectures that would have to be “decontaminated” and stored could be as high as 29 million cubic metres.

That would be about enough dirt to fill the 59,000-capacity B.C. Place Stadium 23 times.

However, Yuichi Moriguchi, a University of Tokyo environmental-engineering professor, pegged the amount at closer to 100 million cubic metres, enough to fill 80 B.C. Places.

Minister Ishihara had told reporters in Tokyo on June 16 that the dragged-out and often acrimonious soil-storage negotiations between Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party–led administration and local and state governments in Fukushima would be solved once the issue of “monetary value” was settled.

Fukushima residents, evacuees, the governor, and the mayors of Futaba and Okuma—the two towns adjacent to Daiichi that have been tentatively earmarked for storage facilities—were outraged by the comment, calling it insensitive and saying it failed to take into account their dislocation, fears, and sense of helplessness and made them seem to be concerned only with compensation.

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Hopelessness of task evident

And because of the very public nature of this storage dispute, people throughout the country and the world, not just those who have not slept in their own beds for more than three years, are now starting to realize the magnitude, and relative hopelessness, of the cleanup effort.

Professor Moriguchi’s estimate of 100 million cubic metres of radioactive soil needing to be stripped from the ground surrounding Fukushima Daiichi was based on an area of 2,000 square kilometres, including the 1,100 square kilometres of no-entry and evacuation zones. This is the equivalent of about one-seventh of the entire Fukushima Prefecture.

But there are many areas outside this district that are contaminated as well, to varying degrees, including isolated “hot spots”. Some of these were found in Tokyo, more than 200 kilometres away from Daiichi. On the other hand, that original clean-up area consists of up to 70 percent woodlands, hills, and mountains, much of which (if not most) will probably never be touched by decontamination efforts.

Some areas may be deserted forever

And if more than five centimetres of topsoil needs to be scraped off to remove cesium­, after years of rain and groundwater movement, the volume of material needing to be stored will rise accordingly. Prof. Tomoko M. Nakanishi, from the University of Tokyo’s graduate school of agriculture, conducted soil research in Fukushima post-disaster and had this to say about how readily radioactive cesium was absorbed by the soil: “It was like pollen with superglue.”

Friends of the Earth, an international network of environmental groups, reported in 2012 that a test soil-decontamination program for only three houses in Fukushima generated 35 tons of soil waste.

In the end, it will probably be areas around parks, residences, schools, hospitals, and other public buildings that will see the most attention from decontamination efforts.

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According to Greenpeace International, one month after the meltdowns, cesium-137 levels in the sea near Daiichi were 50 million times higher than pre-disaster measurements. (Cesium-137 has a half-life of 30 years; cesium-134’s is a bit more than two years.) 

And Asahi—using data provided by Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO), the Daiichi plant operator—says that 462TBq (a terabecquerel equals one trillion Becquerels) of radioactive strontium have been dumped into the Pacific. Strontium is potentially far more dangerous to human life than either cesium-134 or cesium-137.

There have been conflicting reports about the amounts of even deadlier plutonium that might have been released into the soil, air, or water.

Back in North America…

And officials in North America have been assuring people for three years that they have nothing to fear from the enormous radioactive plume of seawater that has just in recent months really started to wash down the west coast of Canada and the United States. This after incomplete, sometimes farcical, random sampling of limited species of fish and seaweeds with often undisclosed methadology and incomplete released results.

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