Facing 14 million cubic meters of contaminated soil collected during the cleanup of fields and villages near the destroyed Fukushima nuclear power plant, the Japanese government promised residents it would remove the soil, but now finds itself in a deadlock, despite the tens of billions of dollars spent..
OKUMA — It is the planet's largest ever nuclear cleanup job.
As Japanese authorities continue to dismantle the four reactors destroyed during the 2011 Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster, and prepare to gradually release collected and treated water into the sea, they're also trying to clear and store the tons of contaminated soil collected during the cleanup of surrounding fields and villages.
Dozens of former fields, filled rice paddies and hundreds of hectares of forest around the now-disabled power plant have been turned into a giant radioactive landfill. In the municipalities of Okuma and Futaba, some areas are still off-limits to the public.
On a recent day, countless dump trucks came to drop off contaminated soil. An army of construction vehicles including excavators, bulldozers and rollers compress the soil in successive layers, building artificial hills 15 meters high, a sort of layered cake.
"Collection began in 2015 in the villages of the area," explains Yoshitomo Mori, a Ministry of Environment executive working on the project. "We have already recovered a total of 14 million cubic meters of contaminated soil." That's the equivalent of more than five pyramids of Giza.
And the trucks are still running — possibly for several more decades, to fulfill the government's promise to the traumatized local population that the pyramids would eventually be moved elsewhere in the country.
A ballet of dump trucks
This pledge dates back to 2014. At the time, the government had regained control of the situation in the destroyed power plant, and had started to look into managing the contaminated soil. Authorities deployed a plan to clean contaminated surfaces in about fifty municipalities, including those evacuated after the accident and those that received considerable radioactive fallout.
"There weren't really any other solutions. It was that or abandoning the area, like at Chernobyl," recalls Olivier Evrard, a research director at the Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission (CEA), currently at Fukushima University.
Throughout the region, an army of bulldozers operated by 70,000 "cleaners" from dozens of small businesses began to scrape the surface of fields, alleys, soccer fields and schoolyards. Around houses, the work was done with shovels. "They didn't touch the forests, which cover 75% of the affected area," Evrard notes. Too complicated, acknowledge the specialists.
More than 1,200 dumps
The question quickly arose of how to store these tons of soil, branches, weeds and rocks, which were collected every day and placed in immense black one-ton bags. The government set up a network of 1,200 temporary dumps in municipalities, where trucks deposited cargo every night. Ministry of Environment statistics count one million bags.
But a more sustainable solution was needed. Tokyo negotiated with the municipalities of Futaba and Okuma, which housed the plant and became ghost towns, completely emptied of their inhabitants. The government asked them to accommodate the gigantic storage site for this waste.
They accepted, in exchange for a promise: these mountains of contaminated soil must disappear from Fukushima prefecture within 30 years after the start of the work, by 2045. The towns want to regain their inhabitants, their fields and their life before the disaster. The state agreed, and set the date in a law passed in November 2014.
After this pact, the government opened its checkbook. If Tokyo, which already suffered from a public debt equivalent to more than 250% of its GDP, gave no estimate of the budget for the 30-year project. It acknowledges that managing this waste has cost approximately ¥310 billion per year in recent years, or $2.3 billion.
Is it possible that this cleanup will ultimately cost nearly $70 billion over three decades, as some suggest? "No estimate has yet been made of the total cost of this work," retorts Hiroshi Nunota, deputy director in charge of the site regeneration project.
In addition to clearing the area, the state had to buy all of the nearby land to build a huge "temporary" storage site. Construction giants Kajima, Shimizu and Obayashi won contracts to build the eight large reception, sorting and waste management plants scattered throughout the area, which is off-limits to the public.
Workers at TEPCO's Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station work among underground water storage pools on 17 April 2013. Two types of above-ground storage tanks rise in the background.
Despite the cold and snow, in mid-February, trucks wait in front of a conveyor belt to deposit bags retrieved from one of the temporary storage sites using a mechanical arm. "At the height of activity, we had 3,000 trucks a day shuttling back and forth to move the waste," recalls Yoshitomo Mori.
"Right now, it's about 200," he says. In the factories, conveyor belts carry the bags to a grinder that tears them open, and then to a series of enormous rotary sieves that sort the waste.
Recovered by other trucks, the soil will be buried for decades near the plant. Stones, which are very lightly contaminated, are used for construction work, while plants and the black bags are burned in incinerators also built on site.
Their ashes, which include concentrated radioactive elements, are also stored on site in a dedicated building. "We have almost emptied 95% of the temporary sites where waste bags were stored," says Hiroshi Nunota. The first phase of the project is almost complete. Now, everything must be started again.
Nine years after its promise, the Japanese government assures that it will keep its promise and empty the entire site of the 14 million cubic meters of soil. "The removal of this waste from Fukushima Prefecture by 2045 has been validated, and we will do it," asserts Hiroshi Nunota. "It is a firm commitment by the government, and it must stick to its plan," adds Jun Yoshida, the mayor of Okuma, who hosts half of the storage site and is working to try to bring life back to his village, which began to reopen in 2019.
Half of the town's territory is now habitable. But the inhabitants are still missing. There were 11,500 before the accident at the plant. Today, there are 936: employees of the plant's dismantling project, municipal officials, and 172 former residents, mostly elderly people who wanted to return home, or people living in the new, affordable rental housing built by the government to encourage people to return.
Subsidies are flowing abundantly. City hall has begun building a huge school complex in the hopes of attracting 25 children. A community center, retirement home and even a beautiful public bath have been inaugurated. Now, there is talk of a new medical center near the small housing development, where half a dozen shops struggle to survive.
"If we had been able to return to our village earlier, things would surely have been different," laments Kazushi Takeuchi, the owner of Café Rainbow restaurant, who is now 70 years old. But after eight years away from home, most evacuees have rebuilt their lives elsewhere, and many have doubts about the possible rebirth of their city and the relocation of contaminated lands.
March 2011, Fukushima, Japan. This handout photo released by Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) shows the tsunami coming onto the slope at the eastern side of the Radioactive Solid Waste Storage Facility.
Tepco / Jana Press
A political deadlock
They know that the Ministry of Environment is struggling to identify a site to host the excavated soil. For now, it is mainly trying to reduce the stored volumes by testing the reuse of lightly contaminated soils.
Soil contaminated with less than 8,000 becquerels per kilogram can be used in construction sites, as fill, or even for agricultural projects. "There are several studies for non-food crops," points out Olivier Evrard.
The Ministry of Environment is currently testing the planting of flowers and rice on the contaminated soil. "The transfer of cesium to the edible part of the rice is very low," Evrard explains.
But these risk-free projects are currently being carried out on a tiny scale. In its most optimistic projections, the government dreams of redistributing three-quarters of its mountains of waste. But even getting rid of a few kilos seems impossible.
When the government started contacting other prefectures in the country in 2021 to test the idea of having them reuse some soil from Fukushima, none agreed. The officials fear the anger of their constituents, who are suspicious of anything labeled Fukushima.
In recent weeks, even residents of Tokyo have formally protested against the possible use, in a few months, of a very lightly contaminated bag of this soil to grow a few flowers in a restricted area of Shinjuku Gyoen Park. "We don't want this contaminated soil," residents protested in a small demonstration. At Café Rainbow in Okuma, Kazushi Takeuchi sighs: "I want to trust the government, but I have a feeling that the temporary storage center will soon be transformed into an eternal storage center."