In Iitate, Japan, a village 20 miles from the Fukushima nuclear plant, workers cleaned a school in a decontamination effort. (Photography: Ko Sasaki for The New York Times)
IITATE, Japan — As 500 workers in hazmat suits and respirator masks fanned out to decontaminate this village 20 miles from the ravaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactors, their confusion was apparent.
“Dig five centimeters or 10 centimeters deep here?” a site supervisor asked his colleagues, pointing to a patch of radioactive topsoil to be removed. He then gestured across the village square toward the community center. “Isn’t that going to be demolished? Shall we decontaminate it or not?”
A day laborer wiping down windows at an abandoned school nearby shrugged at the work crew’s haphazard approach. “We are all amateurs,” he said. “Nobody really knows how to clean up radiation.”
Nobody may really know how. But that has not deterred the Japanese government from starting to hand out an initial $13 billion in contracts meant to rehabilitate the more than 8,000-square-mile region most exposed to radioactive fallout — an area nearly as big as New Jersey. The main goal is to enable the return of many of the 80,000 or more displaced people nearest the site of last March’s nuclear disaster, including the 6,500 villagers of Iitate.
It is far from clear, though, that the unproved cleanup methods will be effective.
Even more disturbing to critics of the decontamination program is the fact that the government awarded the first contracts to three giant construction companies — corporations that have no more expertise in radiation cleanup than anyone else does, but that profited hugely from Japan’s previous embrace of nuclear power.
It was these same three companies that helped build 45 of Japan’s 54 nuclear plants — including the reactor buildings and other plants at Fukushima Daiichi that could not withstand the tsunami that caused a catastrophic failure — according to data from Citizens’ Nuclear Information Center, a watchdog group.
One of them, the Taisei Corporation, leads the consortium that sent out the workers now tramping around Iitate in hazmat suits. Consortiums led by Taisei and the other two big companies — Obayashi and Kajima — among them received contracts for the government’s first 12 pilot decontamination projects, totaling about $93 million.
“It’s a scam,” said Kiyoshi Sakurai, a critic of the nuclear industry and a former researcher at a forerunner to the Japan Atomic Energy Agency, which is overseeing this phase of decontamination. “Decontamination is becoming big business.”
The cleanup contracts, Mr. Sakurai and other critics contend, are emblematic of the too-cozy ties they say have long existed between the nuclear industry and government.
“The Japanese nuclear industry is run so that the more you fail, the more money you receive,” Mr. Sakurai said.
The Japan Atomic Energy Agency said the construction giants would not necessarily receive the bulk of the future work, which will be contracted out by the Environment Ministry. Company officials, however, have indicated they expected to continue serving as primary contractors.
“We are building expertise as we work,” said Fumiyasu Hirai, a Taisei spokesman. “It is a process of trial and error, but we are well-equipped for the job.”
Kajima and Obayashi said they could not comment on the projects under way.
An Environment Ministry official, Katsumasa Seimaru, said that big construction companies were best equipped to gather the necessary manpower, oversee large-scale projects like decontaminating highways and mountains, and properly protect and monitor radiation exposure among the cleanup workers.
“Whether you promoted nuclear or not beforehand isn’t as important as what you can do to help with the cleanup,” Mr. Seimaru said.
Other construction companies are scrambling to get in on the action. In late January, the Maeda Corporation, another general contractor, won a cleanup contract, this one awarded by the Environment Ministry. Maeda bid to take the job for less than half the expected costs, an apparent loss-leader maneuver to get a foot in the door that has drawn complaints from other bidders, including Taisei.
Early this month, a city just outside the exclusion zone, Minamisoma, said that it would also allocate 40 billion yen ($525 million) worth of decontamination projects to groups led by national general contractors. Whatever the controversy, there is no question Japan is undertaking a crucial task. The endeavor is meant to go far beyond the partial cleanup that followed the 1986 Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine, which left a 19-mile radius around the plant that, even a quarter-century later, remains largely off limits.
But there is little consensus on what cleanup methods might prove effective in Japan. Radioactive particles are easily carried by wind and rain, and could recontaminate towns and cities even after a cleanup crew has passed through, experts say.
“No experts yet exist in decontamination, and there is no reason why the state should pay big money to big construction companies,” said Yoichi Tao, a visiting professor in physics at Kogakuin University who is helping Iitate villagers test decontamination methods on their own. He is also monitoring the effectiveness of the energy agency’s decontamination projects.
Though big companies have won the main contracts so far, the actual cleanup — essentially a simple but tedious task of scrubbing and digging — is being carried out by numerous subcontractors and sub-subcontractors, who in turn rely on untrained casual laborers to do the dirtiest decontamination work.
This tiered structure, in which fees are siphoned off and wages dwindle each step down the ladder, follows the familiar pattern of Japan’s nuclear and construction industries.
On the Iitate project, most of the workers come from elsewhere. The self-described amateur wiping down the school windows, who would identify himself only as Shibata, said he was an autoworker by trade who resided about 160 miles away, just east of Tokyo in Chiba. He said he had jumped at news that there was “decent-paying work but not so dangerous” in Fukushima.
Mr. Shibata said he was working two four-hour shifts a day and was being put up in a local spa resort. Although he and other workers declined to discuss their wages, local news media have reported that the pay for decontamination work can reach about 25,000 yen, or around $325 a day.
He spoke as he wiped a window with a paper towel. “One swipe per towel, or the radioactive particles just get spread around,” he said. “Not that you can see the radiation at all.”
Indeed. A similar cleanup project at the Iitate community center last fall, undertaken by the local government, was unable to reduce the radiation to safe levels.
The pilot projects led by Taisei and the other contractors have already hit snags. The government, for example, failed to anticipate communities’ reluctance to store tons of soil scraped from contaminated yards and fields.
Some critics, meanwhile, have argued that local companies and governments could perform the cleanup work for much less money, while creating local jobs.
Some Iitate villagers have enlisted the help of university experts to take matters into their own hands. Their experiments, they say, suggest that decontamination must start on the forested mountains that cover three-quarters of Iitate’s land area.
“Even if they clean up our homes, the radiation will sweep down from the mountains again and recontaminate everything,” said Muneo Kanno, a 60-year-old farmer. Like many other residents of Iitate, he stayed in the village for more than a month after the disaster, unaware that the radioactive plumes had reached Iitate.
Mr. Kanno fled the village in May but returns on weekends to try different decontamination methods. Recently he took Mr. Tao, the visiting physicist, to a nearby mountain to test the effectiveness of removing dead leaves from the ground to reduce radiation levels.
There is no public financing for their work, which is supported by donations and the volunteer efforts of the villagers themselves. On a recent morning, about a dozen volunteers, some as old as 70, scrambled up a snowy mountainside to rake leaves into cloth sacks, wearing only regular clothes and surgical masks.
“We know the land here far better than the construction companies do,” Mr. Kanno said. “We are afraid that the money is just disappearing into thin air.”
Yasuko Kamiizumi contributed research.
Author: Hiroko Tabuchi
Source: The New York Times