[…]In the period following the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster, Japan saw the release of harmful radioactive pollutants or radionuclides, such as iodine‑131, cesium‑134, cesium‑137, strontium‑90, and plutonium‑238, among many others. Yet today, the scale of radioactive contamination throughout northeastern Japan is no longer what it used to be since 2011. Indeed, that’s what the members of the local and central government, as well as nuclear-related agencies, have repeatedly stated throughout the years. Many journalists have kept promoting this discourse, with The Guardian recently stating that “In the empty lands around Fukushima today, most of the radiation is long since gone.”
Indeed, the levels of radioactivity in places like New York are mostly the result of background radiation, which is naturally occurring radiation from the soil or the sun. These are rays that pass through the body and leave. Fukushima, on the other hand, is dealing with the release of radionuclides, which are fission products from nuclear power plants. These radionuclides are not rays, but dust-like particles that can stick to the body and be inhaled or ingested. Weather factors like wind and rain have displaced many radionuclides like cesium-137, which accumulate in patchy locations, such as ditches, drainage areas, or playgrounds. Because of this uneven dispersion, monitoring posts often overlook the presence of hot spots, places where the level of radiation is significantly greater. Dissatisfied by state-sponsored monitoring, many citizen scientists have collectively tracked and monitored residual radioactivity in Japan, legitimizing the presence of hot spots.
Levels of radiation have also decreased due to a massive state-sponsored program of radioactive decontamination in the urban and rural areas of Fukushima. The process of decontamination consists of collecting and removing radioactive pollutants. Radionuclides are then contained in vinyl bags, so as to impede the risk of rescattering residual radioactivity. As a testament of the government-led decontamination, mountains of black plastic bags, filled with contaminated soil or debris, can be seen in many parts of Fukushima, forming a stark contrast against the emerald-green mountains of the region.
As such, decontamination does not imply that radiation has vanished; it has simply been moved elsewhere. Yet in rural regions, where many of the bags are currently being disposed, far away from the eyes of urban dwellers, residents are still forced to live near the storage sites. Many rural residents have criticized the actual efficacy of the decontamination projects. For instance, vinyl bags are now starting to break down due to the build-up of gas released by rotten soil. Plants and flowers have also started to grow inside the bags, in the process tearing them apart. With weather factors, residual radioactivity inside the bags will eventually be scattered back into the environment.
In the end, state-sponsored monitoring and decontamination are remedial measures that manage the perception of radiation in the environment. However, this does not imply that radioactive contamination is gone – not at all. When we look at the official maps of radiation of northeastern Japan, levels are low, but there are many ways to make them appear low. With overall lifespan that exceeds hundreds of years, radionuclides like cesium-137 or strontium-90 will continue to pose a problem for decades to come. However, with the upcoming 2020 Tokyo Olympics, it is doubtful that the Japanese state will ever acknowledge this reality.