Even as Evacuation Orders are Lifted, Recovery Remains Distant Prospect for Many Fukushima Residents

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Six years after the disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station, the government has lifted evacuation orders on four municipalities around the plant, allowing residents to return home for the first time since the meltdowns. The author, who has been involved in reconstruction planning since the evacuation orders were first given, calls for a multiple-track plan to meet the complicated needs of those who return and evacuees who continue to live elsewhere as evacuees.

The Beginning of the End, or the Prelude to New Heartache?

The Japanese government on March 31 and April 1 of this year lifted evacuation orders for areas around the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station it issued in the wake of the nuclear accident at the plant more than six years ago. The decision finally allowed some 32,000 residents of the four radiation-affected municipalities of Iidate, Kawamata, Namie, and Tomioka to return to their homes. Following the move, the only places still subject to evacuation orders are Futaba and Ōkuma (where the Daiichi plant is located) and parts of five neighboring towns and villages.

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The Japanese media almost universally hailed the decision as a “major milestone” toward residents of affected areas rebuilding their lives. But this supposed milestone can be taken in two quite different ways. In much of the media there was an optimistic sense of a return to normalcy, resulting in the view that the evacuation orders lifting was a long-awaited new beginning in the recovery effort, and that residents would finally be able to start rebuilding their lives and communities. Another, more cynical view, however, is that it merely marked the start of new string of woes. Considering the challenges that face residents, in my opinion this second interpretation is closer to the truth.

The optimistic view is pushed by the national and prefectural authorities in charge of advancing recovery efforts in Fukushima, and is based on the following scenario.

1. Designate evacuation zones across areas affected by radiation, and provide support to evacuees in the form of temporary housing and compensation.

2. Decontaminate the affected areas.

3. Prepare to lift the evacuation orders as radiation levels fall.

4. Rebuild local infrastructure and reestablish local services, rebuilding health, welfare, and retail facilities where necessary.

5. Lift evacuation orders.

6. Evacuees return home.

For the thousands of evacuees forced to live away from their homes over the past six years, however, there is quite a different sense to the orders being lifted. Some people will decide to return home while others will remain where they are. No matter their decision, though, we must face the fact that new challenges await both groups.

Many of those most eager to return home are the elderly, but health and welfare provisions are still far from satisfactory in many areas. There are also lingering doubts for other members of the community, such as the future of the area’s farming, forestry, and fisheries. Local economies have been devastated, raising the question of employment and whether people will even be able to buy daily necessities, let alone support themselves long term.

The situation at the power plant also remains precarious and much work remains to be done. The problem of radioactive water has yet to be solved and a medium-term storage facility must be found for huge amounts of contaminated material. However, there is not even a timetable for when these will be accomplished. Faced with such uncertainty, many people will simply choose to remain where they are rather than risk returning home. However, this decision brings a different set of problems, as many of the support systems put in place to help evacuees will be cut off now that they are no longer prevented from going back.

In surveys carried out between 2014 and 2017 by the Reconstruction Ministry, the Fukushima Prefectural government, and the evacuated municipalities, more than half of residents of Futaba, Namie, Ōkuma, and Tomioka said they did not plan to return to their homes after the evacuation orders were lifted. In other areas where more than a year has already passed since evacuation orders were rescinded, the number of residents who have returned remains at 20% or less everywhere except Tamura. These sobering figures illustrate the steep road awaiting evacuees wishing to go home.

Assessing Conditions in the Affected Areas

The fact that authorities lifted evacuation orders despite so many issues still unresolved demonstrates a disregard for the challenges confronting residents. Now more than ever, we must consider and assess the uncertainties residents face and ascertain future challenges.

In the areas recently deemed fit again for human habitation, flexible containers filled with contaminated materials still lie in heaps at various temporary storage points, where they have been since clean-up operations began. While the plan is to eventually move these to medium-term storage facilities, I wonder if authorities when deciding to lift the evacuation order really understood the anxiety and stress placed on residents who must live their lives surrounded by mountains of contaminated debris.

d00319_ph02-680x451Containers of contaminated soil in temporary storage await safety checks in Minamisōma, Fukushima, on June 11, 2016.

The town of Hirono is situated 22 kilometers from Fukushima Daiichi. Following the disaster, the town’s medical services fell to the sole efforts of the head of the local hospital, Dr. Takano Hideo. However, the future of the hospital was thrown in doubt when Takano died in a fire late last year. Nakayama Yūjiro, a physician in Tokyo, assisted for a time, spending two months earlier this year as the hospital’s resident doctor.

Nakayama wrote a diary based on his experience, which was published in April 2017 by Nikkei Business online as Ishi ga mita Fukushima no riaru (The Reality of Fukushima: A Doctor’s View). In his account, Nakayama describes the ongoing tragedy of the disaster and discusses the numerous people who have died from conditions brought on by the stress of residing in temporary living conditions. He points to three main reasons for these deaths: Separation from family and loss of community; interruption of ongoing medical treatment; and change of environment. Nakayama’s experience illustrates how in indirect ways, the death toll from the disaster continues to rise.

Giving Up on the Dream of Going Home

The situation is worse still for people whose homes are subject to ongoing evacuation orders. Sasaki Yasuko, who was evacuated from her home in Namie, spent the time since the disaster in temporary housing in the town of Koori. In a 90-page record of her life as an evacuee called Osoroshii hōshanō no sora no shita (Under a Fearsome Radioactive Sky), she writes: “I don’t want to die in temporary housing. That’s all I ask. Everyone is talking about wrapping things up and bringing an end to the disaster—but I don’t want my life to end like this. . . . Since the disaster, there seem to be slogans everywhere I go that are meant to keep our spirits up. But what more can I do than what I’m already doing? I wish someone would tell me what I’m expected to do.”

I met Sasaki for the last time in the spring of 2013. She was still living in temporary housing and was working to complete a model of her home in Namie, desperately trying to recreate from memories a place she thought she would never see again. Around a month after that, I learned that she had been hospitalized and had passed away at the age of 84. I also heard that before entering the hospital, she had taken her model and smashed it to pieces.

d00319_ph03-680x453Sasaki Yasuko toward the end of her life, at work on a model of her abandoned home in Namie.

I had many other opportunities to talk to people whose homes are in areas “closed to habitation indefinitely.” Several of them told me that when they had tried to tidy up one of their short visits home, they found their houses in a state of chaos as a result of intrusions by boars and other wild animals. The residents asked the authorities to do something about it, saying, “Can’t you catch the boars, or at least hire someone to stop them from getting into our houses?” But no business could be persuaded to take the project on as everyone was too afraid of the high radiation levels.

Faced with difficulties and indignities like this, people’s eagerness to return home slowly withered. They say that the radiation tore everything up by the roots—history, culture, community—and they wonder if any amount of compensation can make up for such a loss. Robbed of their local heritage, many residents of affected areas continue to lament the cultural implications of the disaster.

The Need to Support Both Returnees and Evacuees

The authorities imagine a simplistic scenario where lifting the evacuation orders results in everyone returning home and living happily ever after. But life is not so simple, and this storyline does not include solutions for problems like those outlined above. As well as working to restore and rebuild the physical infrastructure in the evacuated towns and villages, the authorities need to work with residents to develop programs that will help them get their lives back on track. These programs need to have realistic outlooks of the future and must consider the hopes of the residents themselves.

From the initial days after the disaster, the message from the national government and Tokyo Electric Power Company, the operator of the Daiichi plant, has been: “Leave this to us.” This has permeated their attitude in establishing support efforts for evacuees in temporary housing, setting radiation safety standards, cleanup work, compensation negotiations, livelihood support, and reconstruction plans. Everything has been handled in an ad hoc fashion, leading to misunderstanding and anxiety and opening gaps between the authorities and those they are supposedly trying to help. For residents, all these actions are closely connected. There is still no process for building consensus and bridging the gulf that has formed between the authorities and the residents who should be playing a leading role in rebuilding their communities. It is in this context that the evacuation orders were lifted.

The authorities should make it a priority to draw up a less simplistic scenario that better reflects the reality on the ground. There must be a multiple-track plan balancing programs to rebuild communities and support returnees’ lives back home with measures that provide help to evacuees who choose to remain where they are. One idea worth considering would be a program that allowed evacuees to divide their lives between two areas for a bridging period, giving them time to rebuild their hometowns while remaining in temporary housing. One way this could be accomplished is to provide residences where evacuees could live on a part-time basis as they work to rebuild their communities and repair their damaged and neglected homes.

(Originally published in Japanese on May 9, 2017. Banner photo: A photographer snaps photos of somei-yoshino cherries in Tomioka, Fukushima Prefecture, on April 12, 2017. Most of the 2.2-kilometer stretch of cherry trees is barricaded off inside an evacuation area. Since this spring, the first 300 meters of the road have been opened to the public during the daytime. The district is now designated an “area closed to habitation provisionally.” © Jiji.)

http://www.nippon.com/en/currents/d00319/

Ex-Officials of Fukushima NPP Operator to Face Trial for 2011 Disaster in June

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Former executives of the TEPCO company, which operated the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant (NPP) will come up for trial on June 30 for the 2011 nuclear disaster, local media reported on Wednesday
MOSCOW (Sputnik) — In February 2016, former TEPCO chairman Tsunehisa Katsumata and two ex-vice presidents Ichiro Takekuro and Sakae Muto were accused of failing to take necessary security measures in the face of potential tsunami-related incidents at the NPP.
According to the NHK broadcaster, the preparations for the first hearing is ongoing at the Tokyo District Court.
In March 2011, a 9.0-magnitude earthquake triggered a tsunami that hit the Fukushima NPP and led to the leakage of radioactive materials and the shutdown of the facility. The accident is considered to be the world’s worst nuclear disaster since the Chernobyl accident that took place in the Soviet Ukraine in 1986.
 

2 more nuclear reactors in Japan clear regulator’s safety review

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The No. 3 (right) and 4 reactors at Kansai Electric Power Co.’s Oi Nuclear Power Plant are seen in November 2016.
 
TOKYO (Kyodo) — The Nuclear Regulation Authority formally confirmed Wednesday that two reactors on the Sea of Japan have met the country’s post-Fukushima safety standards, paving the way for their restart possibly this fall.
 
The authority gave its final approval to a screening report submitted by Kansai Electric Power Co. on the Nos. 3 and 4 reactors at Oi plant in Fukui Prefecture, bringing the number of reactors that have met the standards introduced after the 2011 nuclear accident at the Fukushima Daiichi plant to 12 at six power stations.
 
For the restart, Kansai Electric still has to pass on-site pre-operational checks by the authority and obtain approval from the Fukui prefectural government.
 
The utility said in a statement it will “make utmost effort for the early restart of nuclear plants whose safety has been confirmed by gaining the understanding of local residents.”
 
Although the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been promoting the restart of nuclear reactors, most of them remain offline amid safety concerns among local residents following the Fukushima disaster triggered by a massive earthquake and tsunami.
 
The nuclear safety watchdog gave the green light to the restart of the reactors despite a pending lawsuit filed by local residents seeking to block the resumption of operations. Kansai Electric has appealed a Fukui District Court ruling in 2014 which banned it from running the two reactors due to safety concerns.
 
Seismologist Kunihiko Shimazaki, a former commissioner of the NRA, has warned that the authority may have underestimated quake hazards at the Oi plant.
 
Kansai Electric applied for the screening of the two reactors at the Oi plant in July 2013. With Wednesday’s approval, all of its seven nuclear reactors at three power stations for which the utility has sought screening have cleared the safety standards.
 
Of the seven, the No. 4 reactor at Takahama plant in Fukui restarted operation on May 17, while the No. 3 reactor of the same plant is expected to get back online in early June.
 

TEPCO to look inside Fukushima reactor 3

TOKYO (Jiji Press) — Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings Inc. will probe the inside of the containment vessel of the No. 3 reactor at its disaster-stricken Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant this summer, company officials said Monday.
 
The aim of the move is to confirm the expected presence of melted nuclear fuel debris in the containment vessel.
 
TEPCO explained the plan at a Nuclear Regulation Authority meeting on the decommissioning process of the Fukushima plant, which suffered a triple meltdown due to damage from the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami.
 

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Study: S. Korean nuclear disaster would hit Japan the hardest

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The projected spread of radioactive cesium-137 from a disaster at the No. 3 reactor’s spent fuel pool of the Kori nuclear plant in Busan, South Korea (Provided by Kang Jung-min)

A serious nuclear accident in South Korea could force the evacuation of more than 28 million people in Japan, compared with around 24 million in the home country of the disaster.

Japan would also be hit harder by radioactive fallout than South Korea in such a disaster, particularly if it occurred in winter, when strong westerly winds would blow radioactive substances across the Sea of Japan, according to a simulation by the Natural Resources Defense Council, a Washington-based think tank.

The simulation, based on a scenario of an unfolding crisis at the Kori nuclear power plant in Busan, South Korea, was led by Kang Jung-min, a South Korean senior researcher of nuclear physics, and his colleagues.

At events in Japan and South Korea, Kang, 51, has repeatedly warned about East Asia’s vulnerability to a severe nuclear accident, saying the region shares the “same destiny” regardless of the location of such a disaster.

The Kori nuclear complex is home to seven of the country’s 25 commercial reactors, making it one of the largest in South Korea. Its oldest reactor–and the first in the country–went online in 1978.

Spent nuclear fuel at the Kori plant is cooled in on-site storage pools next to reactors.

But the operator of the plant has ended up storing spent fuel in more cramped conditions than in the past because waste keeps accumulating from the many years of operations.

An estimated 818 tons of spent fuel was being stored at the pool of the Kori No. 3 reactor as of the end of 2015, the most at any reactor in the country.

That is because the No. 3 pool has also been holding spent fuel from the No. 1 and No. 2 reactors since their fuel pools became too crowded.

Storing spent fuel in such a manner greatly increases the risk of a nuclear accident, Kang warned.

Kang’s team simulated the series of likely events that would follow if the No. 3 reactor lost power in a natural disaster or an act of terrorism.

With no power, the spent fuel at the No. 3 reactor could not be cooled. The cooling water would evaporate, exposing the fuel rods to air, generating intensive heat and causing a fire.

Hydrogen gas would then fill up the fuel storage building, leading to an explosion that would result in the release of a large amount of vaporized cesium-137 from the spent fuel.

Assuming that the catastrophe occurred on Jan. 1, 2015, the researchers determined how highly radioactive cesium-137 would spread and fall to the ground based on the actual weather conditions over the following week, as well as the direction and velocity of winds.

To gauge the size of the area and population that would be forced to evacuate in such a disaster, the team took into account recommendations by the International Commission on Radiological Protection, a private entity, and other organizations.

The results showed that up to 67,000 square kilometers of land in Japan–or much of the western part of the country–would fall under the evacuation zone, displacing a maximum of 28.3 million people.

In South Korea, up to 54,000 square kilometers would need to be vacated, affecting up to 24.3 million people.

The simulation also found that 18.4 million Japanese and 19 million Koreans would remain displaced for even after 30 years, the half-life of cesium-137, in a worst-case scenario.

Radioactive materials from South Korea would also pollute North Korea and China, according to the study.

Nineteen reactors in South Korea are located in the coastal area facing the Sea of Japan, including those at the Kori nuclear power plant.

Kang said the public should be alerted to the dangers of highly toxic spent fuel, an inevitable byproduct of nuclear power generation.

One ton of spent fuel contains 100,000 curies of cesium-137, meaning that 20 tons of spent fuel would be enough to match the estimated 2 million curies of cesium-137 released in the 1986 Chernobyl disaster.

An average-size light-water reactor produces about 20 tons of spent fuel in one year of operation.

East Asia is home to one of the world’s largest congestions of nuclear facilities, Kang said.

Japan, China and South Korea, which have all promoted nuclear energy as state policy for decades, together host about 100 commercial reactors.

A number of nuclear-related facilities are also concentrated in North Korea, particularly in Yongbyon, north of Pyongyang.

If a severe accident were to occur in China, the pollution would inevitably spill over to South Korea and then to Japan.

That is why people should take serious interest in not just their own country’s nuclear issues, but also in neighboring countries,” Kang said. “Japan, China and South Korea should cooperate with each other to ensure the safety and security of spent fuel and nuclear facilities.”

He said the risks of a fire would be reduced if spent fuel were placed at greater intervals in storage pools.

Ideally, spent fuel should be moved to sealed dry casks and cooled with air after it is cooled in a pool for about five years,” he said.

http://www.asahi.com/ajw/articles/AJ201703300001.html

 

High levels of radioactive material migrating down into soil around Fukushima

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High levels of radioactive cesium remain in the soil near the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant and these radionuclides have migrated at least 5 centimeters down into the ground at several areas since the nuclear accident five years ago, according to preliminary results of a massive sampling project being presented at the JpGU-AGU joint meeting in Chiba, Japan.

In 2016, a team of more than 170 researchers from the Japanese Geoscience Union and the Japan Society of Nuclear and Radiochemical Sciences conducted a large-scale soil sampling project to determine the contamination status and transition process of radioactive cesium five years after a major earthquake and tsunami caused a nuclear accident at the Fukushima Daiichi plant.  

The team collected soil samples at 105 locations up to 40 kilometers (25 miles) northwest of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in the “difficult-to-return” zone where entry is prohibited. The project seeks to understand the chemical and physical forms of radionuclides in the soil and their horizontal and vertical distribution.

The Japanese government has monitored the state of radioactive contamination in the area near the plant since the 2011 accident by measuring the air dose rate, but scientists can only determine the actual state of contamination in the soil and its chemical and physical forms by direct soil sampling, said Kazuyuki Kita, a professor at Ibaraki University in Japan, who is one of the leaders of the soil sampling effort.

Understanding the radionuclides’ chemical and physical forms helps scientists understand how long they could stay in the soil and the risk they pose to humans, plants and animals, Kita said. The new information could help in assessing the long-term risk of the radionuclides in the soil, and inform decontamination efforts in heavily contaminated areas, according to Kita, one of several researchers will present the team’s preliminary results at the JpGU-AGU joint meeting next week.

Preliminary results show high levels radioactive cesium are still present in the soil near the plant. The levels of radiation are more than 90 percent, on average, of what was found immediately following the accident, according to Kita.

Most of the radiocesium in the soil was found near the surface, down to about 2 centimeters, immediately following the 2011 accident. Five years later, at several sampling points, one-third to one-half of the radiocesium has migrated deeper into the soil, according to Kita. Preliminary results show the radiocesium moved about 0.3 centimeters per year, on average, deeper into the soil and soil samples show the radiocesium has penetrated at least 5 centimeters into the ground at several areas, according to Kita.

The team plans to analyze samples taken at greater depths to see if the radiocesium has migrated even further, he said.  

Most of the radioactive cesium remains after five years, but some parts of the radioactive cesium went from the surface to deeper soil,” he said.

Knowing how much radioactive contamination has stayed on the surface and how deep it has penetrated into the soil helps estimate the risk of the contaminants and determine how much soil should be removed for decontamination. The preliminary results suggest decontamination efforts should remove at least the top 6 to 8 centimeters of soil, Kita said.  

The preliminary data also show there are insoluble particles with very high levels of radioactivity on the surface of the soil. Debris from the explosion fused with radiocesium to form small glass particles a few microns to 100 microns in diameter that remain on the ground, according to Kita. The team is currently trying to determine how many of these radiocesium glass particles exist in areas near the nuclear plant, he said.

We are afraid that if such high radioactive balls remain on the surface, that could be a risk for the environment,” Kita said. “If the radioactivity goes deep into the soil, the risk for people in the area decreases but we are afraid the high radioactive balls remain on the surface.”

Nanci Bompey is the manager of AGU’s public information office. This research is being presented Thursday, May 25 at the JpGU-AGU joint meeting in Chiba, Japan. 

http://blogs.agu.org/geospace/2017/05/19/high-levels-radioactive-material-migrating-soil-around-fukushima/