Decontamination efforts at Fukushima, which began in 2012, have proved massively expensive and hugely intensive. Thousands of workers have invested tens of thousands of hours removing soil and cleaning houses, unfortunately with very limited success.
One result of the decontamination effort is clearly visible. Immense quantities of radioactive waste have been generated, and it keeps on multiplying. Along the roads, piles of large black bags. each holding around a cubic metre of radioactive waste, await transport to larger temporary storage sites.
We visited one of these sites in Kawauchi. In the breathtakingly beautiful setting of forests and mountains our first sight was of an immense area filled with bag upon bag of radioactive waste. At just this one site no less than 200,000 of these cubic-metre bags lie covered by green tarpaulins.
Around Fukushima there are thousands of similar nuclear waste storage sites.
The supposed ‘decontamination’ has succeeded only in relocating the radioactive contamination. It’s a huge problem without any real, safe solution.
Even these large-scale efforts are proving inadequate in lowering radiation exposure levels to government targets. As evacuation orders are lifted, people are moving back into areas that are still dangerously contaminated. Many residents are effectively being forced to return home, because within a year of the order to return they risk losing their already meagre compensation. Those living in contaminated areas face a terrible dilemma.
In Kawauchi, another area where the evacuation order was lifted only a few weeks ago, 59% of our radiation measurements were over the target level and, again, we measured higher levels away from the roads.
Many of those who can afford to are staying away. Like Mrs. Watanabe who will never return to her beautiful home and mountain orchard that have been heavily contaminated by the Fukushima disaster. They are lost to her forever. She would rather live in relative safety in a tiny flat, and bear the heavy cost of building a new house elsewhere, than put her health at risk by returning to her mountain home and the land that she once so cherished.
We also returned to the village of Iitate. We’d taken measurements back in 2011, ten days after the start of the disaster, when citizens had not yet been evacuated. It was still heavily contaminated, having suffered the full extent of the explosions at Fukushima with no shelter from any surrounding mountains that could have blocked some of the radioactive fallout.
The first thing that struck me on returning to Iitate was the heavy traffic – only this time the cars were mostly full of decontamination workers, and the trucks were filled with radioactive waste. Hundreds of workers were labouring intensively in a vain attempt at decontamination. At a rough guess, I would say that over 1,000 workers are engaged in trying to decontaminate this one place.
It appears to be a political operation, one designed to give the impression that even after a nuclear disaster the problem is “manageable”. Radiation levels in Iitate show no prospect of falling to what is deemed acceptable. At no less than 96% of the locations we monitored radiation levels that exceeded the government’s target level.
This is the overwhelming and unsolvable nature of a nuclear crisis. When a major nuclear disaster occurs, the damage is long-lived, pervasive, and impossible to rectify. It generates enormous amounts of waste for which there is no safe storage. It literally destroys entire communities and people’s way of life.
Fukushima’s citizens are having to live with the gross injustice of having lost everything to a nuclear disaster for which they were in no way responsible. Now they are being stripped of the meagre and inadequate support they received as they are effectively forced back into radioactively contaminated areas.