Corruption At “Decontaminating” Radioactive Towns In Japan

On Friday, Katsutaka Idogawa, mayor of Futaba, a ghost town of once upon a time 7,000 people near Fukushima No. 1, told his staff that evacuees might not be able to return for 30 years. Or never, given the age of many of them. He spoke in Kazo, Saitama Prefecture, where the town’s government has settled. It was the first estimate of a timeframe. But it all depends on successful decontamination efforts. And they’ve turned into a corruption scandal.

This time, it hit the companies doing the decontamination work and the Environment Ministry.

The Ministry lined up 11 municipalities in Fukushima Prefecture for decontamination work: removing radioactive materials from the outside of buildings and from areas within 20 meters of buildings, roads, and farmland. It would be the initial process of the long-term goal to reduce airborne radiation level to under 0.23 microsievert per hour. Work has begun at four municipalities, for which ¥650 billion ($7.5 billion) has been earmarked. Big bucks, and it’s just the beginning.

The Ministry hired major construction companies, which in turn hired subcontractors, which then often hired sub-subcontractors to do the actual work, a murky process in Japan. The Ministry’s contracts stipulated how the decontamination had to be done and how radioactive waste had to be disposed of. Roofs, walls, and other surfaces would have to be washed by hand or with brushes. Power washers would not be allowed, except to clean gutters. Contaminated runoff would have to be collected and disposed of according to the rules. Contaminated leaves and soil would have to be placed in bags to prevent radiation from spreading. And dumping of radioactive materials is illegal. Violators would be fined or get thrown in the hoosegow for up to a year.

Alas, reporters of the Asahi Shimbun discretely watched and photographed, then interviewed decontamination workers at different sites. It was chilling. For example, leaves and soil contaminated by radioactive fallout weren’t put in bags and taken to collection sites for proper disposal but were dumped into rivers, at the bottom of slopes, or in other areas. Forbidden power washers were used to decontaminate houses, parking lots, and other areas; contaminated water splashed on neighboring structures, or was allowed to seep into the soil or reach the drainage system and eventually the river.

As a consequence, radiation levels after decontamination were in some cases significantly higher than they’d been before, as contaminated materials had become airborne, reaching in one case 2.9 microsieverts—near the catastrophic level at which the evacuation of residents would be required.

The culprits weren’t some lazy workers but the whole hierarchy. Supervisors had instructed workers to ignore the rules and laws for collecting and disposing of radioactive waste. Confronted with an onslaught of complaints from residents who’d observed these misdeeds after the decontamination work started last summer, Environment Ministry officials at the local office did nothing. They didn’t even record the complaints, due to convenient staffing shortages—”Because there was a continuous stream of phone calls coming in, we were unable to keep records,” an official lamented. Even subcontractors subject to numerous complaints weren’t pushed to correct their actions.

Just as conveniently, these complaints dissipated at the local office of the Ministry and never made it to the Tokyo headquarters. “We were not even aware that a large number of complaints had come in,” explained a high-ranking official.

Or so it seemed. But when a worker, who’d been told to dump contaminated vegetation at the bottom of a hill, blew the whistle and called the hotline at headquarters, nothing happened. The dumping continued for another month. “It was meaningless to have made the call,” he told the Asahi Shimbum.

Scandals of this type not only threaten the health of the residents or any possibility of return for evacuees; they also reveal a darker side of Japanese society where observing rules is a religion. And a relentless challenge for gaijin. When it comes to big bucks and power, Japan Inc.—companies and bureaucrats that protect them—has turned violating rules with impunity into an art. The nuclear industry has been a poster boy of it. Meanwhile, the little people struggle to adhere to millions of rules, many of them unspoken, to maintain their notion of a harmonious society.

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