Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

Japan's Nuclear Cleanup Comes Up Short, Critics Say ; $11 Billion Effort Makes Little Use of Promised Cutting-Edge Technology

Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

Japan's Nuclear Cleanup Comes Up Short, Critics Say ; $11 Billion Effort Makes Little Use of Promised Cutting-Edge Technology

Article excerpt

More than a year and a half after the nuclear crisis, much of Japan's post-Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster cleanup remains slapdash and bereft of the methods called effective by government scientists.

CORRECTION APPENDED

The decontamination crews at a deserted elementary school here are at the forefront of what Japan says is the most ambitious radiological cleanup the world has seen, one that promised to draw on cutting-edge technology from across the globe.

But much of the work at the Naraha-Minami Elementary School, about 20 kilometers, or 12 miles, from the ravaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, tells another story.

For eight hours a day, construction workers blast buildings with water, cut grass, and shovel dirt and foliage into large black plastic bags -- which, because they have nowhere to go, dot Naraha's landscape like funeral mounds.

More than a year and a half after the nuclear crisis, much of Japan's post-Fukushima cleanup remains primitive, slapdash and bereft of the methods praised by government scientists as effective in removing harmful radioactive cesium from the environment.

Local businesses that responded to a government call to research and develop decontamination methods have found themselves largely left out. American and other foreign companies with proven expertise in environmental remediation, invited to Japan in June to show off their technologies, have similarly found little scope for participation.

Recent local news reports that crews were dumping contaminated soil and leaves into rivers have focused attention on the sloppiness of the cleanup.

"What's happening on the ground is a disgrace," said Akifumi Shiga, chief executive of Shiga Toso, a refurbishing company based in Iwaki, in Fukushima Prefecture. The company has developed a more effective and safer way to remove cesium from concrete without using water, which could repollute the environment. "We've been ready to help for ages," Mr. Shiga said, "but they say they've got their own way of cleaning up."

Shiga Toso's technology was tested and identified by government scientists as "fit to deploy immediately," but it has been used at only two small locations, including a concrete drain at the Naraha- Minami school.

Instead, the central and local governments have handed over much of the Yen 1 trillion, or $11.4 billion, decontamination effort for the country to the largest Japanese construction companies. The politically connected companies have little radiological cleanup expertise, and critics say they have cut corners to employ primitive -- even potentially hazardous -- techniques.

The construction companies have the great advantage of available labor. In Naraha, about 1,500 cleanup workers are deployed every day to power-spray buildings, scrape soil off fields, and remove fallen leaves and undergrowth from forests and mountains, according to an executive at Maeda Corp., which is in charge of the cleanup.

That number, the official said, will soon rise to 2,000, a large deployment rarely seen on even large-scale projects like dams and bridges.

The construction companies suggest that new technologies may work but are not necessarily cost-effective.

"In such a big undertaking, cost-effectiveness becomes very important," said Takeshi Nishikawa, an executive based in Fukushima for Kajima, the largest Japanese construction company. The company is in charge of the cleanup in the city of Tamura, a part of which lies within the 20-kilometer exclusion zone around the Fukushima Daiichi plant. "We bring skills and expertise to the project," Mr. Nishikawa said.

Kajima also built the reactor buildings for all six reactors at Daiichi, leading some critics to question why control of the cleanup effort has been left to companies with deep ties to the nuclear industry.

Also worrying, industry experts say, are cleanup methods used by the construction companies that create loose contamination that can become airborne or enter the water. …

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