Last Wednesday marked the ninth anniversary of the meltdowns, fires and explosions that destroyed the Fukushima nuclear plant in March 2011.
Two years after the disaster, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe assured the International Olympic Committee that "the situation is under control" in and around the stricken plant. Now, with the 2020 Summer Olympics approaching, and some events scheduled to be held in Fukushima prefecture, all sorts of irresponsible and cruel tactics are being used to bury a myriad of social and environmental problems associated with the nuclear disaster.
Most evacuation orders have been lifted around the Fukushima plant, but 337-371 sq kms remain classified as restricted entry zones or 'difficult to return' zones. There are hopes that all remaining evacuation orders could be lifted within a few years.
Lifting an evacuation order is one thing, returning the area to something resembling normality is quite another. Only 23% of those living in nine areas that were declared off-limits after the Fukushima disaster had returned as of March 2019, according to government figures. Most people aged under 50 who used to live in the towns of Futaba, Namie and Tomioka have no plans to return, an official survey found in early 2019.
The partial lifting of evacuation orders in the town of Okuma in April 2019 illustrates how the rhetoric of progress masks inconvenient truths. Even after the lifting of the order, about 60% of the town's land area - covering 96.5% of the pre-Fukushima population - remains off-limits . A 2018 survey found that only 10% of respondents expressed a desire to return to Okuma, while 60% had no plans to return . Few people have returned since the evacuation order was lifted.
About 17 million cubic metres of contaminated waste material has accumulated during decontamination work according to the Japanese Ministry of the Environment. A new occupant in Okuma is a ' temporary storage facility ' for some of the contaminated waste.
Decontamination work (outside of the Fukushima nuclear plant) has cost an estimated ¥2.9 trillion (A$41.4 billion). A report by the European Geosciences Union, based on approximately 60 scientific publications, gives this assessment of decontamination efforts:
This synthesis indicates that removing the surface layer of the soil to a thickness of 5 cm, the main method used by the Japanese authorities to clean up cultivated land, has reduced cesium concentrations by about 80% in treated areas. Nevertheless, the removal of the uppermost part of the topsoil, which has proved effective in treating cultivated land, has cost the Japanese state about €24 billion.
This technique generates a significant amount of waste, which is difficult to treat, to transport and to store for several decades in the vicinity of the power plant, a step that is necessary before it is shipped to final disposal sites located outside Fukushima prefecture by 2050. By early 2019, Fukushima's decontamination efforts had generated about 20 million cubic metres of waste.
Decontamination activities have mainly targeted agricultural landscapes and residential areas. The review points out that the forests have not been cleaned up - because of the difficulty and very high costs that these operations would represent - as they cover 75% of the surface area located within the radioactive fallout zone.
These forests constitute a potential long-term reservoir of radiocesium, which can be redistributed across landscapes as a result of soil erosion, landslides and floods, particularly during typhoons that can affect the region between July and October."
Greenpeace coordinated a study in the exclusion zone and lifted evacuation areas of Namie and Iitate and published the results in March 2019. The study found high levels of radiation - ranging from five to over 100 times higher than the internationally recommended maximum of 1 mSv/yr - in both exclusion zones and in areas where evacuation orders have been lifted.
The Greenpeace report documents the extent of the government's violation of international human rights conventions and guidelines, in particular for decontamination workers and children (who are more vulnerable to radiation-related diseases than adults).
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