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Ridding Fukushima of radiation contamination

Not keen on waiting for what they see as the national government's slow response, Japanese engineers come up with innovative ways of decontaminating Fukushima.
Last modified: 12 Sep 2011 17:11
Iwamura oversees a simulation experiment for his soil-decontamination system [D.Parvaz/Al Jazeera]

FUKUSHIMA PREFECTURE – Nestled among the rice paddies and country roads is a workshop where engineers work with a singular focus on a vital project: A process to decontaminate soil from radiation leaking from the Daiichi nuclear power plant roughly 50km away.

There, a large, blue, monster of a machine carries out a four-part process to decontaminate soil, isolating the Caesium-137 particles spewing from the plant, which has been experiencing a meltdown since the March 11 earthquake.

Heading up the project is engineer/inventor Junichi Iwamura, who until the earthquake six month ago, was a professor of business management at Kinki University in Osaka.

Within days after the earthquake and tsunami, it became clear that the nuclear plant was unstable, so Iwamura quit his job and, armed with plans for a soil-decontamination machine he’d been thinking about for a few years, headed to Fukushima.

Iwamura and the team he’s working with, all on a volunteer bases at the moment, are hoping TEPCO, the operator of Daiichi and the government, which have promised to pay for cleaning up the soil in contaminated farms near the nuclear plant, will use his system.

There’s a risk to the engineers running the machine  - the dense, radioactive silt has to be somehow handled, stored and handed back to TEPCO, as required by law.

"It’s not like we don’t have fears doing this," said Iwamura, "But we’re thinking of the children, so we have to get over it."

Urgency overides patience

Waiting for TEPCO and the national government to move quickly on the matter isn’t an option.

At the moment, neither entity has a good name in Japan.

TEPCO’s numerous coverups of problems at its plants have been exposed, and its handling of the crisis lead to massive criticism, and, ultimately, the resignation of its chief over $15bn in losses.

It was recently revealed that TEPCO floated the idea of withdrawing from the plant after the explosions and fires that followed the earthquake.

Meanwhile, the country’s previous prime minister, Naoto Kan, whose response to the nuclear accident was also deemed sluggish, was shown the door, despite vowing to move the country away from nuclear power.

The new prime minister Yoshihiko Noda, said he concurs, although he’s also said that the process would be gradual, he wasn’t sure when or how the nuclear industry would be reconsidered or phased out, so on and so forth.

In a country that’s had six prime ministers since 2006, one might think that continuity - or sticking with any policy long-term - might be an issue.

While the country - with some eye-rolling - can accept a wait-and-see attitude towards political wrangling and double-speak, no one wants to wait around for decontamination.   

"The potential damage from thyroid cancer is vast," said Iwamura, pointing out the urgency of the situation. "Like in Chernobyl."

But … the number of thyroid cancers officially attributed to the 1986 Chernobyl accident are relatively small.

Also, the government, and, indeed, an army of nuclear experts - whose views are undisputed by some - say that the levels of radiation contamination in the area are low.

“That’s not true,” said Iwamura. “Do you believe what TEPCO and the government tell you?” 

The last politician who said that Fukushima was, in essence, a bad scene (more specifically, a "death zone"), was forced to resign immediately.

Yoshio Hachiro, who had only just been appointed to Noda’s new cabinet, has been swiftly replaced by the far more media savvy Yukio Edano, Kan’s chief cabinet secretary. 

In the days following the earthquake, Edano held such an impressive marathon of press conferences that Japanese media dubbed him Jack Bauer, the hero of TV show 24, in which each episode takes place in an action-packed 24 hours.

Despite the resignations and replacements, Iwamura says he doesn’t think the Japanese government "feels the suffering of the people".

"They don’t know how people in a weak position feel,” he said. “They should know how people are living here."

Follow D. Parvaz on Twitter: @DParvaz