Evacuated: An evacuee rests in a gymnasium serving as an evacuation centre in Yamagata, Japan, in March 2011. Residents from the vicinity of Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant were sheltered at the gym, as officials and workers struggled to contain the situation at the badly damaged nuclear facility.
A COLUMBAN missionary has witnessed a massive contamination clean-up in the Japanese region surrounding Fukushima, where a 2011 earthquake and tsunami triggered a nuclear power plant meltdown.
Fr Paul McCartin, recently visited the Fukushima region, six years after the nuclear disaster, and ahead of a government evacuation order being lifted at the end of this month, which will allow people to return home.
Arriving by bullet train at the town of Kouriyama, 60km west of Fukushima Number One Nuclear Power Plant, Fr McCartin said the first surprise was the large radiation monitor in front of the station.
“Over the next three days I saw similar monitors in cities, beside country roads and along expressways,” Fr McCartin, the Columban Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation co-ordinator in Japan, said.
He has worked in Japan since 1979 and visited the Fukushima last September.
“I had taken face masks but our guides gave us better ones,” he said.
“We were told to make sure we washed our hands and around our mouths before eating.
“I was given a small radiation monitor to wear around my neck.
“Over the two-and-a-half days I was exposed to 8.1 micro Sieverts, an ‘acceptable’ amount.”
The Sievert is a measure of the health effect of low levels of ionising radiation on the human body.
As Fr McCartin drove through the Fukushima countryside, he found houses barricaded, roads closed and warnings from officials amidst a massive clean-up.
“I was restricted. There were roadblocks with security personnel,” he said.
“I was advised not to hike in Fukushima as there is a lot of radiation in the mountains, especially at the base of mountains as rain washes it down.
“Buildings and roads are being washed down, and contaminated soil and vegetation being removed.”
He said topsoil to a depth of five centimetres was being removed and replaced with soil from unaffected areas.
“There are large collections of industrial waste bags all over the place. There must be hundreds of thousands, if not millions,” he said.
At the end of March, Japan is set to lift evacuation orders for parts of Namie, located 4km from the wrecked Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, as well as three other towns.
More than half of Namie’s former 21,500 residents have decided not to return.
Namie, and other nearby centres are now ghost towns, dilapidated, and for many, they conjure horrific memories.
Tsunami damage: Facilities near the seawater heat exchanger building at Tokyo Electric Power Company’s Fukushima Daini nuclear power plant Unit 3 reactor on April 2, 2011, days after an earthquake and tsunami hit the area in north-east Japan.
A government survey showed last year, there were lingering concerns over radiation and the safety of the nuclear plant, which is being decommissioned.
Beyond radiation risks, an unexpected nuisance looms – hundreds of wild boars have descended from surrounding hills and forests into the deserted towns.
The creatures have roamed across the radioactive contaminated region.
In Namie, wild boars occupy the empty streets and overgrown backyards foraging for food.
In the nearby town of Tomioka, local hunters have captured an estimated 300 boars.
Following his visit last September, Fr McCartin is concerned about the spread of contaminated material.
“Low-level waste is being recycled,” he said.
“Highly contaminated waste is being burned.
“So far only one per cent of high-level waste has been burned.
“More incinerators are being constructed.
“Contaminated waste is being used in the wall being built along the shore to prevent another tsunami hitting the area.
“In fact, there is so much radioactively contaminated waste that local facilities can’t handle it, so ‘low-level waste’ is being transported to many distant places for disposal.
“Contaminated fishing gear and nets are being disposed of in the town where I live.
“In this way, radiation is being spread to many parts of the country.
“It would seem to make sense to keep it where it is and avoid unnecessarily contaminating the rest of the country.”
Fr McCartin said the Japanese media was muzzled from challenging the government on Fukushima and the hazards of nuclear power.
The efforts of individual journalists reporting on the issue were often dismissed.
“A Catholic in Yokohama told me last year that after his daughter wrote a piece on Fukushima for the newspaper she works for, her boss told her, ‘No more on Fukushima’,” he said.
“The government has threatened to shut down any media organisation that publishes something the government doesn’t like.
“In the last year or so three forthright and prominent media personalities have been sacked or not had their contracts renewed.”
Fr McCartin said he supported a call by Japanese Catholic bishops to abandon the nuclear power industry.
“I believe that if the government transferred a small fraction of the trillions of dollars it throws at the nuclear industry to the renewable energy industry, the country would be awash in safe energy in a very short time,” he said.