The sign on the building says it’s a church. It’s a Baptist Church, actually, in Fukushima. The assembled group of Japanese and Americans are (according to the caption on the website), “standing safely on the porch of their newly decontaminated school”. The church serves as a Nursery School for a group of small children who spent five months inside after the March 11th disaster. Well! Here are the kids, standing outside (looking both solemn and a bit bewildered ) , with the adults behind them looking downright exuberant. Did some sort of miracle occur here? I found this photo accidentally while doing a Google search for photos of decontamination efforts in Fukushima, and my curiosity was immediately piqued. Of course, that happens repeatedly during the course of a single day, and many detours, in fact, lead to nothing of significance. Having followed the detour (gotten off the known entity of the paved road and onto that dirt road leading to…?) , I’m usually left with mixed feelings of satisfaction (“Well, now at least I know where THAT road goes. “) and regret (” Oi, oi, but what a waste of time!”) This time, however, I dug right in, feeling certain that I wouldn’t regret the extra twenty minutes. And I didn’t. The website on which the photo was posted described a project initiated by a company in Honolulu, Hawaii to introduce their relatively new (proven and tested in the last two years) miracle product to the radiation-ridden communities of Fukushima City. Company representatives travelled to Japan this past summer and volunteered their time in “de-contaminating” the church/ nursery school, donating both their manpower and large amounts of their product (called “DeconGel”) at an estimated value of $250,000.
I’ll get back to that story in more detail, I promise. But first, let me explain exactly why I was trawling through photos of decontamination efforts in Fukushima. It began with an excellent article from the Economist, entitled “Hot Spots and Blind Spots” (October 8th). The article described the predicament of Iitate Village, located 45 kilometers Northwest of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant; technically outside of the 30 kilometer evacuation zone, the village was showered with cesium when the wind blew to the West after the hydrogen explosions, carrying radioactive particles farther than anyone had anticipated. Although the central government recognized the area as a “hot spot”, villagers were not
immediately urged to evacuate. Months passed before the village was finally determined unsafe and it’s nearly all of its 6,ooo residents evacuated. I remember watching several NHK news reports focusing on the villagers and their emotional struggle to accept the loss of not just their homes and farms, but of their community and the traditions that had kept it alive and given it meaning for generations. The Iitate villagers had no choice but to scatter, taking refuge with friends or family in nearby prefectures, or taking temporary refuge in evacuation shelters.
The story continues: as of September 30th, the central government has lifted its advisory warning for towns between 20 to 30 kilometer distance from the Fukushima plant, and a decontamination plan has been announced , to cover 2,419 square kilos of soil (an area larger than greater Tokyo). Iitate village is also scheduled for decontamination, and efforts have begun to cleanse the land in anticipation of its inhabitants’ return. This was reported on the nightly news as positive proof of the progress being made in Tohoku and reduction of the level of radioactivity in general. Decontamination measures are now in full swing, and including the removal of cesium-laden dead leaves
from forests and cesium-laden sludge from drainpipes and gutters, the removal of the first 5 centimeters of topsoil from playgrounds and farmland, and “pressure-hosing” of houses in urban areas. This top-to-bottom hosing of houses is being taught in do-it-yourself workshops, and pressure hoses are flying off the shelves in Fukushima. All good? Well, listen to what Kunihiro Yamada, Professor of Environmental Science at Kyoto Seika University has to say on the subject. “The water cleaners” he states, “wash surface dirt off but then that tainted water goes into sewers and can contaminate rivers, thereby affecting farm goods and seafood. If people in highly populated areas were to begin using water cleaners, we may end up finding people forcing tainted water onto each other. ” Well, yes, that does seem to be the logical conclusion, and it’s a wonder that we need a PhD to tell us what public officials should have foreseen in the first place. Well, what about scraping off the top layer of soil then? This has so far proved to be the most effective method in reducing the amount of cesium; unfortunately (and again, quite logically), winds blowing dead leaves from the wooded mountains of Iitate deposit their offerings squarely atop the newest layer of clean soil, thus re-contaminating the land, and undoing any previous work. Is the only answer, then, to cut down entire forests?
Heaven forbid. Yet the forests in Fukushima are deadly repositories of radioactive cesium, from leaves clinging to the branches to the shiitake mushrooms, thriving and unharvested, which attach themselves to wet fallen tree limbs.
Still, the council chief of Iitate, Chohei Sato, hopes that families with young children will return to the village, declaring, “The revival of this town depends on the children returning.” As of this month, however, many families are choosing not to return to the former evacuation zone areas; as a mother, I certainly would not. Even the Economist correspondent, reporting from Iitae, admitted to feeling, “….strangely reluctant to inhale.”
Yesterday’s Mainichi Shinbun also featured an article that sparked my interest and explained the complications involved with decontamination in laymen’s terms. Entitled “True Radiation Contamination Still a Long Way Away”, the article contained an interview with Professor Yamauchi, a radiation metrology specialist from Kobe University, who describes radioactive cesium as existing in three states: dissolved in water, loosely bonded to organic materials such as moss and leaves, and tightly bonded to rock ( think: roads, gutters, cobblestones….or roof tiles). According to Yamauchi, cesium bonds so tightly to substances like roof tiles that power hosing has only a very limited effect in reducing the level of radiation of the house (and only serves to transfer those particles that are washed away into the water itself). ”To bring the roof’s radiation levels down,” he postulates, “there’s probably no other way than to replace the roof.”
Now waaaaait a minute! Hold everything! Here’s where my head started to spin, envisioning full-to-bursting bags of roof tiles, joining the bags of radioactive grass clippings, moss, soil, leaves…..and don’t forget the radioactive sludge! And don’t forget the radioactive water, still building up in the tanks of the Fukushima Daiichi reactors, as well as in enormous “Mega-Floats” positioned ominously along the coastline (As a sidelight, a Japanese news station today released a short video of Fukushima workers spraying large amounts of that radioactive water from reactor tanks into nearby shrubbery, in an effort to prevent possible overflow from the tanks of reactors 5 and 6. TEPCO spokesmen stated the water was “not significantly contaminated”, and would affect no damage on the surrounding environment. But that’s another post in itself). Is it any wonder that Nobel Prize winning author Kenzaburo Oe compared the current situation of Japan to a science fiction story in his recent speech at the Sayonara Genpatsu demonstation rally in Tokyo? There must be a light shining somewhere in all this murky mess (I thought, as I trolled the internet, looking for photos of power hosing and such)……and then I stumbled onto the photo of the happy gang in front of the Baptist Church. The
company from Honolulu is called CBI Polymers. They use polymer-based decontamination technology to deal with radiological, nuclear, and chemical threats. Now there’s a career your great-grandmother never could have imagined. Their product, DeconGel, is promoted as “green”, being water-soluble with a neutral PH level. It looks like blue slime. As I understood from the article accompanying the photo, DeconGel acts as a giant peelable sticker. Brushed on with a squeegie-like implement (that part looks fun), it dries solid, trapping radioactive particles as it hardens. Finally, peel the whole thing off (that looks like fun, too) and you’ve got a radioactive sticker to dispose of. Much more compact than a bag of roof tiles, I’d say. The company promises that nearly 100 percent of the radiation can be removed with this gel, and the Fukushima Nursery School geiger counter readings proved that. The headmistress, overjoyed, immediately let the children out onto the newly-cleaned playground for the first time since the quake, and a short video (you can see it on the above link) shows them frolicking about outside in their adorable school uniforms. You also get to see this awesome gel being applied, which is more interesting than you’d imagine. Oh, and as a final note, the Hawaiian-based company who invented the gel won an award from the US government this past summer for their work in Fukushima, and in Hungary as well.
In the end, peelable stickers will not solve the whole problem. Think of the estimated cost of just that one project, and imagine the hundreds of other Nursery Schools in need of decontamination. And then wind will blow, water will flow, and previously decontaminated areas will be re-contaminated. But something like these stickers may in fact be a practical solution for the moment. When the Mainichi Shinbun article mentioned that Professor Yamada ( he who scoffed at the effectiveness of power hosing ) and his project team are currently working to develop “cloth-like adhesive stickers to affix to roofs”, I thought, “That’s been done! Get the guys from Honolulu back! Or else hurry up and figure this out for yourselves!” At least they’re on the right track.
In any case, what is painfully evident from the latest attempts at decontamination is that the efforts are too little, too late, and too short-sighted. Tokyo University Radio Isotope Center’s Professor Tatsuhiko Kodama (hero of the anti-nuclear movement since making an impassioned speech to the House of Representatives this summer ) has been doing weekend stints in the Fukushima town of Minami -Soma, teaching parents and local officials how to decontaminate homes and nursery schools. He recently stated to the Japan National Press Club, “The decontamination I’ve done is a type of emergency measure to protect children and pregnant women, and not true decontamination….Permanent decontamination requires the knowledge and technology of experts and corporations, and a massive amount of funds. It must not become an interest-driven public project.” In other words, do-it-yourself power hosing will not change much in the long run, and could lead to a false sense of security-just as dangerous as the invisible radiation particles themselves. Your average Japanese citizen is not only skilled in scrubbing and scraping, but (I believe) takes some sort of moral satisfaction from the process. This time, however, citizens cannot scrub away the damage that’s been done. Japan must invest money, and work round the clock to discover new and creative solutions to the puzzle/nightmare of nuclear contamination.
Let me end with words from Professor Kodama’s book, entitled The Truth about Internal Exposure: “We have contaminated our country’s earth, this irreplaceable inheritance from our ancestors that we had been charged with and must pass on to our children. However, if humans are the ones who contaminated it, then we humans should be able to clean it up again. ” I would not call Kodama Senseii pessimistic, yet his hope is tempered with a dose of reality. We “should be able” to clean it up (rather than “will be able”) leaves room for hope, but is still plenty sobering. That’s about as accurate an assessment as you’ll find these days. Good night, all. If you’ve learned something from this post, please pass it on, and I thank you for doing so.