The blog of Tokyo based photographer and photojournalist, Damon Coulter

Cleaning Up

Fukushima, Japan, Wednesday May 1st 2013

One of the things we have seen in Fukushima a lot, both inside and outside the exclusion zone, is the decontaminated earth and undergrowth piled up in vinyl bags. The government has decided to reduce the radioactivity of the soil around the Fukushima Daichi plant exclusion zone by removing the top two or three centimetres of soil. The aim is to reduce the contamination levels in affected areas to under one millisievert a year.

Farmland and residential areas are all to be scraped clean and many of Fukushima’s mountain areas (which accounts for around 60-70% of the contaminated land) will have 20 metres either side of every road cleared. This is what is happening in the image above near the village of Katsurao.

Some estimates put the total clean up area at 13% of the Prefecture: over 100 million cubic metres of soil and brush that so far is being stored in growing mountains of blue and black vinyl bags dotted around the countryside. Many of these are slowly being transported to special depots but some of the strict safeguards necessary to clean the area are already being ignored at this report in the Asahi Shimbun exposes.

Indeed, though technological solutions were promised to both speed-up and improve the decontamination work and companies that have expertise in dealing with such situation were invited to demonstrate their techniques; the job is mostly still being done by hand and the tools the workers can use are routinely primitive to say the least.

The Japanese government initially set aside 650 billion Yen for the decontamination but the area and the costs have risen beyond expectations. Corners are almost certainly being cut to save costs. Not least of these is in protecting the people doing the hard, dirty work of raking through the undergrowth and picking up the soil and leaves are putting them into the bags themselves. We saw no radiation suits or proper masks being worn. Indeed the most common mask we saw worn inside the zone, be they returning residents, clean up workers or policemen, was the next to useless hayfever paper mask that cost pennies in every convenience store. Some on the cleanup crew wore no masks at all! When we asked a not too happy security guard if the radiation was high in the trees and safe he said they measured it everyday and it was less than 0.6 microsieviets an hour (the Government reading). Yet if this was true why bother cleaning the area at all, it was already under the level that was the target of the action? Our Geiger counter read 1.57 microsieverts an hour on the road near where they were working. I cannot imagine what the readings must have been in the mud and leaves of the forest.

Whether this clean-up is for real or not is something I am unclear about. There are people returning to the Fukushima countryside for sure and a lot of the land in parks and schools and areas where people have quickly returned to now has a dry, dusty brown colour where the topsoil has already been removed. But the decontamination of the Prefecture’s mountains just looks like so much window dressing to me. Perhaps it will go on just long enough to convince people that efforts are being made to clean-up the mess and than will be quietly forgotten. It would take hundreds of years, perhaps even thousands, to complete remove the top layer of the soil in the affected area of Fukushima and surrounding prefectures. A school playground can effectively been cleaned perhaps but the bottom twenty metres of a slope will easily be contaminated again the next time it rains anywhere on the slopes above. The project seems pointless to me: designed more to suggest it is now safe to return to the area; that nuclear pollution is actually easy to remove and thus nuclear energy itself is no longer something Japanese people should fear. This will of course make it easy for the governing Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) to follow through on its stated aim of building more nuclear power-stations.

Anyway it’s late I have another photo job tomorrow in Soma, north of the zone. And need to get some sleep.

Read this article by Hirok Tabuchi in the New York Times for more in depth analysis of the clean-up problems facing Fukushima if you have time.

More images of the clean up of Fukushima’s topsoil available at my archive here.




One response

  1. Reblogged this on Japan Reblogged and commented:
    I have read some entries of your Fukushima photos. These days, many news articles are about the people who has returned to their hometowns. There is a concern about where the ‘discontaminated’ soils and garbage are to be stored permanently. Almost nobody wants that kind of materials around. Thank you for sharing photos.

    May 3, 2013 at 11:22 am

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