This interview first appeared in the 2014 edition of Geogramme, a newsletter for alumni and friends of the Department of Geography, University of British Columbia. Reposted with permission.
Over the summer, Professor David Edgington conducted research on the impact of the March 2011 earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear power plant accident on local communities in Northeast Japan.
Tell me about your research trip to Fukushima.
I spent some of June this year talking with local politicians, mayors, councillors, local officials, journalists, academics and concerned residents in Fukushima prefecture where the nuclear plant accident occurred in March 2011. I also learned to use a dosimeter to measure airborne readings of radiation.
Even though the nuclear power plant accident happened more than three years ago, many residents are still concerned about radiation levels. About 70,000 people were evacuated from the area immediately around the stricken nuclear power plant. They now live in temporary housing, most in barrack-type shelters, waiting to return some day in the future.
How close to the Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Plant did you go?
There is a strict 20 kilometer exclusion zone around the plant, which is a no-go zone and this is enforced by the local police. The nearest I came to this was when I travelled en route from Fukushima City to a small coastal port called Soma City. I passed by a series of mountain villages where residents were only allowed to visit their houses during the day in order to check for vandalism and wild animals. The radiation levels there are still too high to allow overnight stays. Soma City on the coast is one of the five municipalities where I conduct field research up and down the Tohoku coastline examining the pace of recovery after the 3.11 tsunami. Just to the south there is another rural municipality called Minami Soma. This is closer to the Dai-ichi Nuclear Plant and most of it is still off limits due to high radiation levels, even though a decontamination program is in full-swing.
How is the decontamination program going?
On my first day in Fukushima city, which is about 50 kilometers inland from the coast, I visited the city hall where there is a ground floor information corner for residents on the decontamination program. There were detailed maps of which districts had been already finished and the progress made over the last three years or so. Basically, the objective is to decrease the air-borne radiation level to under one millisievert per hour, which is the standard set by the national government for the whole of Fukushima prefecture. By careful power-washing of the roofs and walls of each house and building, plus removal of top soil and leaves in gardens and farms, the city council hopes to reduce radiation levels by about half to two-thirds. There is a small army of construction workers spread throughout the city and at other towns in the prefecture. At the same time, the half life phenomenon of certain radiation products, such as cesium, means the radiation levels will also decline naturally. But the council is already behind schedule in decontamination because of the heavy snow fall last winter, but it plans to finish the program in one to two more years.
Removal of so much soil must mount up rapidly. Where does the city store the contaminated soil?
That’s a real problem. The soil is put in large black plastic bags and taken to various temporary sites and stored safely with the highest radiation-count bags in the middle of the pile. Discussions are still on-going as to where to finally store these bags. The only solution seems to be to dig a deep hole, probably on land inside the exclusion zone at the coast. But none of the villages there have given their permission. It’s not surprising!
Your research focuses on the geography of radiation contamination and decontamination. What do you mean by this?
I knew nothing about nuclear radiation before 2011. The only recorded incidence of a nuclear power plant explosion is of course Chernobyl in the Ukraine, back in 1986. In that case, a much larger area was evacuated and no decontamination work was carried out. In Fukushima, apart from the 20 kilometer evacuation zone, the decision was taken by the national government to keep people at home and for children to continue going to school and so on. As a result, people have to cope with the legacy of low-level radiation, as well as the threat of further accidents at the Dai-ichi nuclear power plant until it is finally decommissioned in about another 30-40 years.
The radiation from the plant did not disseminate in a strictly geographical pattern. Because of the effects of rain and wind in the days following the explosion, there are now so many `hot-spots’ of relatively high radiation that is unsafe, especially for young children. Some of these are on city roads in Fukushima, some are in the parks close to schools, some are in the surrounding mountains where contaminated water flows into farmers rice paddy fields. There doesn’t seem to be an effective way of monitoring all of the hot-spots, which appear to be in a geographically random pattern. This is the problem of the geography of contamination and decontamination.
Wow! How do you think the local people are coping in this situation?
It’s certainly an unusual state of affairs. Fukushima prefecture is a large area with many different towns, cities and rural communities, so I heard a variety of responses to that question. Some families are making plans to leave while others say they have nowhere else to go to. Mothers are worried about hot-spots and young children and the possibility of them getting thyroid cancer. I noticed a lot of anger against the national government as well as the TEPCO electric power company that runs the nuclear power plant, and unfortunately that anger seems to have spilled over to the local officials in city hall that I met, who are tasked with doing a very difficult job. I hope to do another round of field-work in Japan next summer and to keep in contact with the people that I met and conduct research on the progress made in decontamination.