Fukushima Today... by Julia West

At JAEA's F-TRACE site within the exclusion
zone where surface runoff and soil movement is
being monitored
The disastrous earthquake and tsunami of 11 March 2011 devastated the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station in Japan. This resulted in a discharge of radioactive material into the air which spread a radiocaesium (Cs-137) plume inland with radioactive material deposited over a large part of Fukushima and beyond. Over 150,000 people were evacuated from their homes and today, some 2 and half years later, nearly 46,000 people still wait to return.

Our Prof Julia West was invited to attend a special international workshop organised by the JAEA (Japan Atomic Energy Agency) to discuss progress in remediating the contaminated areas. The experts were asked to offer their experiences and expertise which could help JAEA’s efforts. They were also taken on a trip to see first hand the damage done to the affected areas around Fukushima. 

Julia is a geomicrobiologist who started her career working on radiocaesium uptake onto various geological materials. She has also advised JAEA and other organisation around the world on practical ways to communicate all things ‘radioactive’ to the uninitiated. Julia has visited Japan some 20 times but never been to Fukushima.

Here's her travel diary which gives you a personal and fascinating glimpse into Fukushima today:

28/29 September
An overnight 12 hour flight from Heathrow to Narita airport outside Tokyo.  The long flight coupled with an 8 hour time difference turns me into a zombie and I proceed through immigration and customs in a daze. Then after 90 minutes on several different trains I make it to the hotel in Fukushima. Next task, where’s the hairdryer? Down to reception. It turns out that what I thought was the dehumidifer is the drier....

A dosemeter placed near the hotel in Fukushima

30th September
Meeting starts at 9am with the local press at the back of the meeting room. Formal speeches and much filming. The press then clear out and we start a full day of presentations including JAEA’s on-going remediation efforts which are hugely challenging (the clean up area extends to a radius of about 20 km inland around the reactor site - more than 600 km2). Currently, much effort is being given to remediation of the forests which cover about 70% of Fukushima prefecture. I speak on the challenges of communication and make suggestions on how the local people can be involved in the clean-up. Food for thought for JAEA.  Mid-afternoon, we all watch the local news which includes a feature on the workshop. Most of the international experts (including me) are featured.
A reception for us tonight and several very eminent Japanese experts speak. It is clear that the international perspective and our advice is seen as very important to the rehabilitation of the land around Fukushima.

2nd and 3rd October
Two days of intensive discussions about radiocaesium behaviour in the environment. I present past BGS experience plus provide information on the BGS BioTran project where we have worked in JAEA on the development of biofilms to alter rock transport properties affecting contaminant flow. Biomineralisation is also discussed because both of these areas offer techniques which could be used to help prevent movement of radionuclides around the reactor site itself.  Much information is being generated by JAEA and other institutes and I suggest that BGS’s long experience with archiving information and handling large datasets may help with making sure that all experiences with Fukushima remediation are fully collated and understood. At the end of the third day the international group make our recommendations which will be published on JAEA’s website.

A temporary storage site for some of the bags
containing contaminated vegetation and soil

4th October
Today is the day we have all been waiting for. JAEA take us by bus to their monitoring sites near Ogi-dam which is in the exclusion zone itself. As we approach the area, the villages become more deserted and the only people you see are elderly. Everywhere there are large black and blue bags neatly piled up containing contaminated vegetation and soil. Forests surround each village and you can see workers cutting back the forest and removing the soil so that a 20 m zone around each village is decontaminated. Much work is going on. As we approach the zone itself, we are kitted out with protective helmets, gloves and wellington boots. All the JAEA staff carry dosemeters and I also have one which I was given by BGS to monitor myself. We are taken into the forest to view an experimental area where water flow and Cs concentrations are measured. The forest is beautiful and the sun shines. It is hard to believe that the area is contaminated although the dose we received during our 2 hour visit was equivalent to that you would get from cosmic radiation during a transatlantic flight. We then travel to another monitoring station beside the lake itself. A monument which had been erected to commemorate the building of the dam is split and half lies some 5 m below the original site – if fell during the earthquake itself.  The area is quiet apart from the sounds of water and our voices – tranquil and lovely. I feel very sad for what has happened here.
We now head off to see one of the many temporary storage sites for the bags full of contaminated material. I am amazed to see it – hundreds and hundreds of large bags all neatly stacked. The sight is staggering in size and makes us all realise the scale of what the Japanese people are doing to decontaminate the area. We are all quiet when we get on the buses to return to the hotel.

October 5th
Return to Tokyo for another meeting with JAEA and then off to the hotel at Narita so I can get the flight home tomorrow. I have a mixture of feelings: great interest at what I have learned and seen during my visit; pleased that I have been able to contribute to the remediation efforts; but mostly I feel great sadness and sympathy with the Japanese people. There is a lot to do and I think BGS can really help with ongoing efforts.

Julia West