The Environment Ministry demonstrates an experiment on recycling contaminated soil, shown in black in the center, in Minami-Soma, Fukushima Prefecture, on May 17.
MINAMI-SOMA, Fukushima Prefecture–In an apparent attempt to quell fears, the Environment Ministry on May 17 showed how it will recycle radioactive soil in construction projects to reduce the growing piles of widely abhorred contaminated debris.
In the demonstration to media representatives here, the ministry measured radioactivity levels of bags of soil collected in decontamination work around the stricken Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, and sorted the earth from other garbage.
Using soil with readings up to 3,000 becquerels of radioactive cesium per kilogram, the ministry plans to create a 5-meter-tall mound measuring 20 meters by 80 meters. Such mounds could be used, for example, as foundations for seawalls and roads in Fukushima Prefecture and elsewhere.
Testing of the methods started on April 24.
After confirming the safety, the ministry wants to promote the use of the recycled soil.
Radioactive debris from the cleanup around the nuclear plant will be stored at interim facilities to be built in Futaba and Okuma, the two towns that host the nuclear plant. The government seeks to move the contaminated debris outside the prefecture for final disposal by 2045.
The government had a difficult time finding municipalities willing to take in the radioactive soil on an interim basis. And safety concerns have already been raised about the ministry’s plan to recycle the radioactive soil.
The cleanup has already collected about 16 million cubic meters of contaminated soil.
Bags of radioactive soil in a temporary storage site in Iitate, Fukushima Prefecture, will eventually be transported to an interim storage facility.
MINAMI-SOMA, Fukushima Prefecture–The Environment Ministry is exploring the idea of reusing tons of radioactive soil as gravel to rebuild infrastructure in this disaster-stricken prefecture and beyond.
To gauge the feasibility of the project, it will conduct tests on whether contaminated soil can be securely contained without spillage while controlling the level of radioactivity.
The experiment is being conducted in a corner of a temporary storage site in the Odaka district here, just north of the crippled Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power plant.
If the tests go off without a hitch, the government is looking at reusing the soil as a construction material in recovery efforts.
Bags of soil gathered through decontamination efforts are kept at temporary storage sites around the Fukushima plant, which went into triple meltdown in the aftermath of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami disaster.
The first phase of the experiment involves 1,000 or so bags of contaminated soil that have to be sorted according to levels of concentration of radioactive cesium.
Radioactive soil with readings of about 2,000 becquerels per kilogram will be used for mock-up construction of seawalls and other structures. The soil will then be covered by fresh soil that is not contaminated.
The test will also explore practical safety management issues, including ways to prevent scattering of contaminated soil and keeping track of measurements of radioactivity of structures once they are completed.
Project workers began opening bags and sorting soil on April 24.
The volume of contaminated soil collected within Fukushima Prefecture amounted to a whopping 16 million cubic meters as of the end of January.
It will be kept at an interim storage facility that has been constructed within the jurisdiction of the towns of Futaba and Okuma in Fukushima Prefecture. Within the next 30 years, the soil is supposed to be transported outside the prefecture for final disposal.
The Environment Ministry said it hopes the tests will show that the plan to reuse radioactive soil in construction is safe. Projects under consideration include building foundations for seawalls and roads. The overall aim is to reduce the amount of soil that will need to be processed for final disposal.
Masaaki Sakai faces his home, which remains standing in the Fukushima Prefecture village of Iitate, on Feb. 15, 2017. In some spots the level of radiation exceeds 1 microsievert per hour, and Sakai has decided to have the structure demolished. (Mainichi)
FUKUSHIMA — As decontamination planned in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster nears an end this fiscal year, focus is shifting to the massive amount of radioactively tainted soil that has piled up during decontamination work. But the construction of interim storage facilities that are supposed to hold this waste within Fukushima Prefecture for up to 30 years before it is finally disposed of has been delayed.
As of the end of February, only about 20 percent of the 16,000 hectares earmarked for interim storage has been acquired through land contracts. It thus appears inevitable that provisional and onsite storage that was only supposed to last for three years will drag on for a long time. The situation casts doubt on the prospects of finding a final resting place for the waste outside Fukushima Prefecture within 30 years.
Six years after the disaster at the Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant, the Fukushima Prefecture village of Iitate remains completely evacuated. With the exception of a so-called “difficult to return zone” in the south of the village, the central government plans to lift the evacuation order upon completion of decontamination work at the end of March.
Masaaki Sakai, 39, who now resides in the city of Fukushima, has a home in the Komiya district of Iitate, right next to the village’s “difficult to return” zone. A dosimeter during a recent visit showed the area around the 60-year-old, snow-covered farmhouse stood at more than 1 microsievert per hour. The level equates to more than 5 millisieverts per year — five times the 1 millisievert exposure limit for a regular person.
Sakai points out that level of radiation is sometimes higher. “Today the level is low because there is snow,” he says. In the near future he plans to have his home pulled down, as the deadline for applying for the government to cover the cost of doing so is approaching.
“Even if I want to return to Iitate, if they say, ‘Decide now’ then the only thing I can do is decide not to return,” he murmurs.
One of the reasons behind Sakai’s decision not to return is the radioactively contaminated soil that remains in the village. Walking around the village, one can see mounds with green covers over them, concealing flexible containers that hold contaminated soil. According to the Ministry of the Environment, the amount of tainted soil stored temporarily like this, as of the end of January, totals roughly 2.4 million cubic meters for the village of Iitate alone, or enough to fill the Tokyo Dome baseball stadium twice.
So far, however, only about 6,000 cubic meters of soil have been transported to interim storage facilities, while the amount due to be transported next fiscal year stands at about 22,000 cubic meters. At this pace, under a simple calculation, it would take over 100 years to transport all of the waste to interim storage facilities.
“There’s no way I’m going to live surrounded by mountains of contaminated soil,” Sakai says.
Makeshift storage of radioactive soil in areas that have not been evacuated also looks likely to be prolonged. In areas that aren’t under evacuation orders, it is the local municipalities, not the government, that handle the decontamination work. In five municipalities including the cities of Fukushima and Koriyama, the contaminated soil left after decontamination work is mostly buried onsite.
Six years have passed since the outbreak of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, and in many cases people have asked for the waste to be removed so they can extend or rebuild their homes or resume farming activities, but the delay in building interim storage facilities means the only solution for the time being is to change the spot where the waste is buried.
It costs several hundred thousand yen to rebury waste in a single case, but until now the Ministry of the Environment has not allowed funds to be used for the reburying of such waste, on the premise that it is supposed to be stored for only a short period of time. Local bodies have still billed the central government by quietly tacking on the cost to the fee for other decontamination work, but this will become more difficult to do next fiscal year when decontamination work is completed.
In January, the Ministry of the Environment adopted a new policy of granting funds for the reburying of waste if the original location hindered the construction of a new home. An official at one local body commented that the move was a relief, but there are outstanding issues. As a rule, the government collectively bills Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO), operator of the Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant, for the cost of decontamination work, but it is unclear whether TEPCO has to pay for the reburial of tainted soil.
Separately, decontamination work has also been carried out in prefectures besides Fukushima — extending to 57 municipalities in seven prefectures, including Tochigi and Miyagi. The amount of contaminated soil in these cases stands at about 320,000 cubic meters. In about 95 percent of cases, the soil is stored onsite. But since interim storage facilities are designed for contaminated soil from Fukushima Prefecture alone, it has not even been decided what should be done with this waste.
Parts of a flexible container bag buried under the couple’s home are seen at the top of this photo taken in Fukushima on Oct. 21, 2015.
FUKUSHIMA — A couple unknowingly built a new home in Fukushima on top of bags containing radioactive soil because they received an inaccurate waste storage sketch created by the Fukushima Municipal Government, it has been learned.
The couple has been unable to remove four flexible container bags of radioactive soil found buried under their home, as doing so could leave their house leaning. They say the city has not apologized.
“Far from admitting responsibility and apologizing, they haven’t even tried to examine the site. They have also been reluctant to release information, and have acted extremely insincerely,” a statement from the pair said.
The couple initially received a Fukushima Municipal Government sketch showing buried waste on a plot of land they purchased, but it contained no dimensions. About 66,000 similar sketches without dimensions have already been distributed, and it is possible that similar incidents could occur in the future as the storage of waste collected in the wake of the meltdowns at Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant becomes prolonged.
In five Fukushima prefectural municipalities, including the city of Fukushima, contaminated soil collected during decontamination work has mostly been stored onsite, while other local bodies have stored it at interim storage facilities. The city of Fukushima is the only one of the five municipalities to have handed landowners waste storage sketches without any dimensions. Those provided by the other four municipalities show dimensions. When land changes hands, the diagrams are normally handed from the previous landowner to the new one.
In November 2013, a man in Fukushima bought a 300-square-meter plot of decontaminated land, and received a “monitoring chart” from the previous landowner with a diagram showing where radioactive soil was buried, along with radiation measurements taken before and after the decontamination. Based on the diagram, the man built a new home, avoiding the northeast of the plot of land where the waste was shown to be buried.
However, when the city came to dig up the buried waste in October 2015, it was found that six flexible container bags with a total capacity of six cubic meters lay under the northeast part of the new home. Four of them could not be removed due to fears of the home being left leaning.
When the man made an official information request for documents on decontamination in May this year, he was given a diagram containing dimensions. This showed that the waste was buried several dozen centimeters closer to the southwest, nearer the center of the plot of land. The man says the actual burial spot was even further toward the center.
A Fukushima Municipal Government official said the purpose of the diagram without dimensions was to display the amount of radiation, and that the burial spot it showed was only a rough indication. The municipal government said the basis of the diagram with dimensions, on the other hand, was different, being used to record the burial spot of waste under the Act on Special Measures Concerning the Handling of Radioactive Pollution.
A city official commented that the decontaminated soil was supposed to be removed quickly and the officials had not expected it to be there until the time a land transaction was made and a home built. The city is considering replacing about 26,000 diagrams that are due to be distributed with ones that show dimensions. It is also considering publicly informing people that the diagrams that have been issued without dimensions are not accurate indications of where waste is buried.
This photo shows the diagram with dimensions, left, and the one without. The No. 3 marking on the second diagram is where radiation levels were measured.
Behind the Environment Ministry’s controversial decision to allow reuse of highly radioactive soil emanating from the Fukushima nuclear disaster in public works projects was an estimate that the reuse could cut the costs of reducing radiation levels of such soil by over 1.5 trillion yen, it has been learned.
The estimate in question was presented during a closed-door meeting of the ministry in January and stated that reuse of radioactive soil generated from Fukushima decontamination work could cut the cost for purifying such soil from 2.9127 trillion yen in case the levels of radioactive cesium are reduced to 100 becquerels per kilogram to 1.345 trillion yen in case the cesium levels are cut down to 8,000 becquerels per kilogram. The estimate calls the latter option “reasonable from economic and social points of view.”
The Environment Ministry decided in June to allow reuse of soil with radioactive cesium of no more than 8,000 becquerels per kilogram in mounds under road pavements and other public works projects. The decision sparked criticism that it runs counter to the safety standards of 100 becquerels or less for recycling metals generated from the decommissioning of nuclear reactors under the Act on the Regulation of Nuclear Source Material, Nuclear Fuel Material and Reactors. The ministry has insisted that the radiation levels of tainted soil used in road mounds can be held down from 8,000 becquerels to around 100 becquerels by covering those mounds with concrete among other measures.
A ministry working group on safety evaluation of radiation effects held closed-door meetings over the issue on six occasions between January and May this year. In June, the Mainichi Shimbun reported that an estimate presented to one of those meetings stated, “For example, it will take 170 years for radiation levels to reduce to 100 becquerels if tainted soil of 5,000 becquerels is put to reuse,” sparking controversy. In response, the ministry on Aug. 1 released the minutes of the closed-door meetings and other documents on its website.
At the second meeting of the working group on Jan. 27, the copies of a document titled “About reasonable radioactivity concentrations of recycled materials” were handed out to attendants. The document, which was drawn up by the Japan Atomic Energy Agency, includes an estimate that the cost for reducing the radiation levels of tainted soil to 100 becquerels for recycling would reach 2.9127 trillion yen, with a volume reduction rate of 40 percent, adding that 40 percent of contaminated soil could not be put to reuse. Meanwhile, the estimate says it would cost 2.1185 trillion yen to drop the radiation levels of tainted soil to 3,000 becquerels, with a volume reduction rate of 0.5 percent, while it would cost 1.345 trillion yen to decrease the radiation levels of soil to 8,000 becquerels, with a volume reduction rate of 0.2 percent. The latter option could make 99.8 percent of tainted soil available for reuse, the estimate says.
“Considering economic and social factors, it is appropriate to set the radioactivity concentration of recycled materials at several thousand becquerels,” the document stated. A note of caution in the document states, “Apart from this, it is necessary to project the cost for final disposal (of tainted soil).”
A ministry official in charge of the issue told the Mainichi Shimbun, “The document was produced in response to a request by a member of the working group. As the document states, it is difficult to (set the standards for reusing tainted soil) at 100 becquerels from a realistic point of view.”