Editorial: Decontamination of radiation-affected areas demands credible, concrete measures

With the spread of a significant amount of radioactive materials in the wake of the accident at the Fukushima No. 1 (Daiichi) nuclear power plant, decontamination is an urgent challenge facing Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda's new administration.

The people of Fukushima Prefecture are beleaguered by the horror of radiation. The government's basic policy involving decontamination, however, was not articulated until former Prime Minister Naoto Kan announced his resignation. This was undeniably too slow.

Moreover, the policy is lacking in specifics, and even appears to have been hastily created. The government must swiftly present a detailed plan for decontamination so that the public can feel more secure.

Based on such a plan, the steps must be pursued as soon as possible. In particular, it is vital to attend to children and pregnant women in order to mitigate the fears they suffer.

The basic policy stipulates that “the central government will promote decontamination efforts responsibly.” When it comes to the planned evacuation area and the no-entry zone where the annual level of radiation exposure could exceed 20 millisieverts, the central government has pledged to pursue decontamination efforts in these areas in a responsible fashion.

On the other hand, with regard to areas where the annual level of radiation exposure falls between one and 20 millisieverts, the central government is asking municipalities to create their own decontamination plans. The policy states that the central government will offer these municipalities its full support by dispatching experts, providing financial assistance, and supplying measuring instruments, among other measures.

The aim is to decrease the annual dose of radiation exposure by half in two years. Moreover, in regard to children, the goal is to decrease the annual dose by 60 percent by thoroughly decontaminating the environments where children are present, including schools and parks. 

Over the long term, the policy sets a target of less than one millisievert as the annual dose of radiation exposure.

Yet the policy is unclear on many points. For instance, how much will decontamination efforts cost? How will the needed manpower be obtained? For those forced to evacuate from areas where the annual radiation dose exceeds 20 millisieverts, if the policy had provided a rough indication of the time when they might return to their homes, this could have offered these displaced residents some hope.

Doubts have been voiced about the feasibility of the goal. Experts who have been engaged in decontamination work on-site point out the difficulty of achieving an annual radiation dose of one millisievert. Reviewing the decontamination policy may be necessary to have it correspond with reality.

People of the affected areas have pushed back against the government's proposal, saying, “The municipalities are victims of this disaster. Why should the victims have to take on their own decontamination efforts?” To these people it is only natural that the central government assume responsibility for the decontamination work in all the affected areas.

But this work must be done swiftly. If improper methods are employed, the contamination could spread further. The work will require significant manpower to carry out a variety of tasks, such as removing soil and cleaning buildings. Timely progress cannot be made without the cooperation of local residents.

Therefore, the central government must do all that it can to ease the burdens shouldered by the municipal governments. It must compensate local governments for their decontamination efforts and urge the Tokyo Electric Power Company to shoulder these burdens as well.

Of greatest concern is how to handle the radioactive waste from such efforts as removing soil. The government's policy indicates that it will be responsible for securing the necessary disposal sites.

Prior to his resignation, Mr. Kan took the position that his administration would seek to develop interim storage facilities within the borders of Fukushima Prefecture. The governor, naturally enough, was taken aback by Mr. Kan's comment.

As the contamination work proceeds, the problem of temporary storage for the radioactive waste will continue to plague these communities.

Where will the permanent disposal sites be established? What sort of security measures will be put in place? These challenges must be considered in concrete terms and discussions are now required to move forward. The chaos will only grow if the government continues to sidestep such problems.

(Originally published on September 1, 2011)