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Fukushima’s ghost towns

Nuclear wasteland Inside the ghost towns of Fukushima,  Eight years on from the tsunami and nuclear meltdown, much of Japan’s Fukushima province remains derelict and deserted. Telegraph, 13 May 19 

There was a chilling silence in the town of Tomioka in the days after the March 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster.

Shoes were left in porches, half-read newspapers lay abandoned next to cups of tea, long gone cold. As night closed in on the seaside town, lights glared out from a few bare windows, while news of the ongoing crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant just six miles away drifted from a solitary radio.

Nobody was home.

Eight years on, little has changed. Before March 11, 2011 – the day the tsunami engulfed the nuclear facility, forcing the evacuation of more than 150,000 residents across the region – the town had a population of 15,960. Now, just a few hundred people have returned despite the lifting of the evacuation order in April 2017.

“Officially 835 have returned, but many are plant and other clean-up workers who are renting out abandoned houses,” says Takumi Takano, a local councillor who splits her time between Tomioka and temporary digs in Koriyama an hour’s drive away that she and her husband Kenichi have lived in since evacuating.

Of the remaining locals most are either elderly, or only return during the day, she says. Most worryingly, just 14 are children. When night falls, they return to “temporary” homes elsewhere, she says. “It’s like a ghost town.”

A similar situation is found throughout the entire evacuated region, where only 12,859 of the 100,510 residents who were living in the zone before the disasters have returned, a Cabinet Office official says. Like Tomioka, many of them are clean-up workers, local residents say.

…… After almost eight years, residents, especially those with young families, have settled elsewhere, securing new jobs and starting new schools or moving out of Fukushima entirely,  says  says Kenichi, a former worker at the devastated nuclear plant.. Many are put off returning by the severe shortage of medical facilities in the region.

Then there’s the radioactivity,” he says, as the couple sit outside their caravan, set up on the land of their recently demolished home, which backs on to a 130-square-mile “difficult-to-return-zone” that is still considered too highly contaminated to inhabit.

Eight years on, radioactivity levels have fallen in the reopened parts of Tomioka, though remain 20 times higher than before the disaster. “It’s much higher over there,” he says, pointing to the blockaded zone, where radiation levels exceed 3.8 microsieverts per hour – the designated threshold for issuing evacuation orders.

That zone is a legacy of the nuclear disaster, when multiple reactor meltdowns and explosions, triggered by a magnitude nine earthquake and towering tsunami, spread radioactive materials for hundreds of miles around……..

despite clean-up operations there to reduce radiation levels below the government-set target of 0.23 microsieverts (µSv) per hour, other legacies of the disaster – the crumbling houses and shops, corroding vehicles and overgrown fields, not to mention 16.5 million containers of contaminated earth collected at some 140,000 sites around the region – are impossible to avoid.

The 0.23 µSv figure is significant in that it adds up to an annual dosage level of one millisievert (mSv) (calculated on the premise that a resident spends eight hours a day outdoors), stipulated by the International Atomic Energy Agency as being safe for members of the public.

But while maintaining that level is complicated by recontamination from surrounding woodland, some experts argue the figure says little about the true dangers, or safety, of radiation exposure. That the Japanese government raised this to 20 mSv in the aftermath of the disasters adds weight to their argument…….

Misao Fujita, a doctor who performs thyroid scans at a clinic in Iwaki, about 30 miles south of the nuclear plant, says a connection between the cancers and radiation exposure cannot be ruled out and the screening effect is no reason to disregard the examinations.

“What we do know is that after Chernobyl, many children developed thyroid cancer, and if you take that into account and consider the high risk that Fukushima children were exposed to radiation then I think we should carry out such tests,” Dr Fujita says, adding that thyroid cancer normally occurs in one in one million children.

Noriko Tanaka, whose son is one of Dr Fujita’s patients, says exams revealing cysts in her son’s thyroid are a concern, not least because iodine-131 – a substance that causes thyroid cancer – was contained in the plume released by the Fukushima plant that landed on Iwaki after the disasters. At the time, she was pregnant with her son. “I worry because nobody knows for sure what the future holds,” she says……….

The issue of the one million tons of contaminated water being stored at the stricken nuclear plant is another worry for residents. After receiving assurances from Fukushima plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO ) that the water had been successfully treated and stripped of all but one radioactive material, tritium, the government announced in 2017 it would start releasing the water into the ocean, despite protests, especially from local fisheries.

TEPCO released convoluted data to demonstrate the water’s safety, but was forced to backtrack last September when further tests showed the sums didn’t add up and 80 per cent of the water was in fact up to 20,000 times higher than the official safe threshold. Furthermore, it contained harmful radionuclides such as iodine, caesium and strontium.

Moreover, while the initial suggestion was that tritium was relatively harmless some studies have shown it to be a cause of infant leukaemia, says Ayumi Iida of NPO Tarachine, which independently analyses seawater samples taken from the ocean near Fukushima’s two nuclear plants.

“Tritiated water is easily absorbed and hazardous when inhaled or ingested via food or water,” she says. “There’s already data indicating infant leukaemia rates are higher near to nuclear plants, and tritium is known to cause DNA damage, so while there are claims that tritium is harmless, there are counterclaims it can adversely affect health, especially among young children.”…….

Shaun Burnie, a nuclear expert with Greenpeace says that discharging the water into the ocean is “the worst option” available, and one whose main consideration is economic.

“The only viable option, and it’s not without risks, is the long-term storage of the water in robust steel tanks over at least the next century, and the parallel development of water processing technology,” he says. ……….

“The reality is there is no end to the water crisis at Fukushima, a crisis compounded by poor decision-making by both TEPCO and the government,” says Mr Burnie.

Among more pressing issues, Mr Burnie says, is 400,000 cubic meters of sludge being stored within the Fukushima plant grounds that contains high concentrations of strontium – known as a “bone-seeker” because, if introduced into the body, it can accumulate in the bones in the same way as calcium does.

With the plant still generating waste, this sludge is expected to nearly double over the next 10 years, he adds.

Strontium releases into the environment from the plant were relatively small following the 2011 disaster, but significantly greater 30 months later, when in 2013 a large strontium-laced plume contaminated land as far away as Minamisoma – a city about 20 km from the plant, Mr Burnie says. Such an event could re-occur, he says.

“Is it a good idea to lift the evacuation orders? Absolutely not. The public are right to be concerned about the possibility of further offsite releases.”

They can also be forgiven for being sceptical over official reassurances that foodstuffs are safe, says Ms Iida of Tarachine, which also runs a produce-testing laboratory and has found “plenty” of items with levels of contamination exceeding the safe limits.

Meanwhile tests on samples of soil – which has no official safe threshold in Japan – have also revealed high levels of radiation in the area, she adds.

Namie’s Obori district, about six miles northwest of the nuclear plant and within the difficult-to-return-zone, is one place where soil radiation levels remain high. In woodland backing the pretty hamlet, which is famed for its pottery but has slowly surrendered to nature, the Telegraph recorded up to 127 µSv per hour – over 350 times the IAEA’s safe threshold……

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May 14, 2019 - Posted by | Fukushima continuing

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