FUKUSHIMA - The Saturday announcement by Fukushima Gov. Yuhei Sato that he will allow the construction of an interim storage facility in the prefecture for radioactively contaminated soil and other waste is a significant step toward the start of transporting waste to the facility in January next year.
One factor in Sato's decision was the harsh reality that more than three years after the outbreak of the nuclear crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, Fukushima Prefecture is dotted with large piles of contaminated soil.
Soil has nowhere to go
"It was a truly painful decision."
So said Sato to reporters on Saturday, after he conveyed his decision to allow the building of the facility to eight municipalities in Futaba County that are near possible construction sites.
Sato appeared relieved to have achieved a measure of progress toward solving his biggest concern, saying, "It's one big mountain, isn't it."
The government's plan is to build a roughly 16-square-kilometer facility in a zone where residency is prohibited for an extended period that straddles the municipalities of Okuma and Futaba. A maximum of about 25.5 million cubic meters of soil and other waste would be monitored in facilities including a storage facility made of concrete to block radiation.
The Environment Ministry expects the process of reconstruction to visibly speed up once the issue of storing contaminated soil is resolved.
The increase in contaminated soil is intimately linked to the progress of decontamination work. The more work is done, the more the volume of contaminated soil increases. If long-term storage is not available, the only option is to temporarily locate the soil on privately owned land.
There were 724 such temporary storage sites in Fukushima Prefecture as of the end of March. By the end of July, only 70 per cent of the needed temporary storage locations had been secured in six municipalities in areas being prepared for residents' return, where decontamination work continues.
With concrete plans for an interim facility failing to materialize, many residents declined to provide land for temporary storage, fearing that contaminated soil would be left there indefinitely. Some of the contaminated soil with no place to go is in "on-site storage" in the gardens of private homes and elsewhere. There are more than 50,000 such places.
The delay in finding temporary storage locations has caused decontamination work to stagnate as well. At the end of last year, the Environment Ministry pushed back the completion date of decontamination work conducted directly under government supervision from the end of March this year to a maximum of three years later.
A plan to construct interim storage facilities first emerged in August 2011. Then Prime Minister Naoto Kan visited Sato at the Fukushima prefectural government office, expressing his hope that the facilities would be built in the prefecture. But the central government had only made an official request to local governments to host the facilities in December last year. Progress over the issue remained deadlocked partly due to Futaba Mayor boycotting the negotiations as he was opposed construction of the facilities.
Local residents demanded the central government present regional development measures out of fear the facilities could hinder reconstruction from the nuclear crisis. The government announced a total of ¥301 billion in financial support, stressing that "the subsidy has a lot of flexibility of use." To deal with strong local concerns about the interim facilities turning into final disposal sites, the central government also pledged to secure through legislation the final disposal of contaminated soil outside Fukushima Prefecture within 30 years from the start of interim facility storage.
Local residents are becoming increasingly frustrated over the slow reconstruction progress, blaming the heads of local governments. Such circumstances are thought to have spurred the local governments into accepting the construction of interim storage facilities.
In Fukushima Prefecture, incumbent mayors in the three major cities of Koriyama, Iwaki and Fukushima lost their elections last year. At the same time, local residents are increasingly looking for leaders to launch the construction of the storage facilities at an early date. The governor's decision to host the facilities is believed to stem from pressure to take measures to address rising fears among local residents.
Some observers pointed out that the Fukushima gubernatorial election set for Oct. 9 was one of the reasons the local government made the decision.
A prefectural assembly member close to Sato said, "[He] can't define his attitude to the election unless he has prospects for the biggest task, which is constructing the facilities." Moreover, the central government is also believed to have requested the prefectural government to conclude construction talks by the end of August due to the possibility of Environment Minister Nobuteru Ishihara leaving his position in the Cabinet reshuffle scheduled for Wednesday.
"Time runs out if the [environment] minister changes. That makes it impossible to transfer tainted soil to the facility in January next year," a central government official said. "Both the central government and Governor Sato will face problems if that situation delays reconstruction work."