asahi shinbun, clean up, community, decontamination

Decontamination work hinges on citizen cooperation, asahi, 1/12/12

By MITSUKO NAGASAWA / Staff Writer

When fears of radiation hot spots spread around the nation’s capital, the city of Nagareyama in Chiba Prefecture sprang into action and quickly drew up a decontamination plan.

One top priority was requiring parents and guardians to decontaminate schools. But the parents expressed shock. They hadn’t been consulted beforehand.

“Are you going to make us shoulder this dangerous work?” one of them asked the city, which removed the language from the document in October.

“We unfortunately rushed the decision on the plan, thinking we could get support from the central government,” said Keiji Tanaka, head of the Nagareyama’s radiation response office.

Support or guidance from the central government has been slow in coming, prompting local governments near the border between Chiba and Saitama prefectures to embark on their own decontamination projects. The result have been mixed, but they all have one thing in common–the need for the cooperation of residents.

Without the residents, these projects may not be able to continue for the long-term to reduce the radiation levels, which are much higher in these zones compared with the rest of the Tokyo metropolitan area.

On Dec. 2, the city of Kashiwa in Chiba Prefecture released a 20-page draft of its three-year decontamination plan detailing areas with high radiation levels and the order in which those areas would be cleaned.

Two revisions had been made on an earlier draft. One revision was to move up by one year the completion date for decontaminating 137 children’s facilities, such as day-care centers, elementary schools and junior high schools, to “within fiscal 2012.”

The other revision mentions that work cannot proceed without residents and volunteers.

“The city cannot do it alone,” the document said.

The average level of airborne radiation in Kashiwa is 0.2 to 0.4 microsievert an hour, which translates into 1.7 to 3.5 millisieverts a year, above the government safety standard.

The draft plan splits the city’s facilities and areas into 36 categories, such as schools, parks and roads, and stipulates decontamination priority based on radiation measurements and how often they are used by children.

The city requested residents’ opinions until Dec. 8 before the final plan is drawn up.

About 30 parents in the city have formed the Dig Here Wanwan Brigade, a volunteer decontamination group. Its leader, Teruo Kawada, 36, who has an 11-month-old son, wrote on the group’s blog, “This is our chance to make our opinions heard.”

The city held town hall meetings on Nov. 21 and 23 attended by the mayor. The working draft was distributed to about 270 people at the meetings, which lasted for about nine hours until all opinions and questions could be heard.

“Why will it take two or three years to decontaminate facilities used by children? They should have priority,” said a father who left work early to attend.

A man living off his pension complained, “My grandchildren can’t come play here.”

Another person criticized the Kashiwa government for its slow response, asking, “Is there nothing that people like us can do?”

Seiichi Someya, head of Kashiwa’s radiation response office, said he didn’t expect such a response from citizens of all ages.

“No matter who you are, everyone wants to ‘reduce radiation levels,'” Someya said. “Being candid about the circumstances is a better way to get residents to impart their knowledge on us.”

The Kashiwa government began seeking radiation experts for consultations with residents, as well as to discuss measures the city should take.

More than eight months since the March 11 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami triggered the accident at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, the Kashiwa government has tried to answer residents’ needs one at a time instead of waiting for the central government to respond.

After a local resident in October reported a high radiation reading of 57 microsieverts per hour on vacant land, the city government was deluged with hundreds of phone calls a day from worried citizens.

The city then scrapped its policy of not taking readings on private property, and provided radiation meters and dispatched city employees to trouble spots. Residents also saw city workers carrying shovels to decontaminate the soil.

A radiation measurement researcher from the University of Tokyo, which has a campus in Kashiwa, stressed to the municipal government the importance of holding small-scale meetings to ease the concerns of mothers. The researcher visited day-care centers with city employees to consult with the children’s guardians.

“I myself may have been waiting for someone to get things moving,” said Kawada of the Dig Here Wanwan Brigade. He said he started to think about taking action in decontamination work when a day-care center began replacing the playground dirt at the request of children’s guardians.

The residents’ joyous response to the work spread over the Internet.

Yashio city in Saitama Prefecture sought the help of neighborhood councils to decontaminate parks, advising council chairs to listen to the opinions of residents and not make unilateral decisions.

“Different people feel differently about the radiation readings,” said Chiaki Sasaki, assistant chief of the traffic and disaster prevention division. “We didn’t want to force people to do something.”

In Misato, Saitama Prefecture, the city’s plan gives priority to decontaminating schools with airborne radiation levels exceeding 0.23 microsievert per hour. Locals observing the decontamination work around a school wondered if their homes were also dangerous and expressed their concerns to the city.

“The decontamination plan is for our safety, but it’s hard to make people understand that,” said Masao Tobari, group leader of the city’s radiation response office.

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About liz

from the u.s., recently moved from kobe to sendai, japan, researching community-based housing recovery after disaster.

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