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Japan Faces Huge Challenge To Decontaminate Irradiated Farmland

A journalist checks the radiation level with her dosimeter before the stricken Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Fukushima Prefecture on February 28.
KORIYAMA, Japan -- On March 11, 2011, a devastating earthquake and tsunami on Japan's northeastern coast caused meltdowns in three nuclear reactors in Fukushima.

The damage released clouds of radiation over some of Japan's most valued agricultural land and farmers there are still struggling to cope with the aftermath.

Japanese officials say 81,000 hectares of farmland are contaminated at a level above 5,000 becquerels per kilogram. That is the limit at which Japan has decreed rice cannot be planted. Also affected are vegetable, fruit, and dairy farms.

Yoshi-ichi Takeda is a dairy farmer in Fukushima Prefecture who says the fallout has destroyed his livelihood. "Emergency relief funds are barely enough to subsist," he says. "The government won't allow my cows to graze and no one will tell me when my land will be decontaminated."

Just down the road in Nihonmatsu, Aiko Saito is still trying to cultivate rice, peas, potatoes, and radishes. "No one will by my rice or vegetables. The prices we get have really fallen," she says. "Last year, my peas got only half of what I usually get. Now, even my children won't eat what I grow."

Lessons Of Chornobyl

This week, though, some guidance to save Fukushima's agricultural industry is coming from abroad.

Japan's government has invited overseas scientists with experience in decontaminating farmland. They are meeting through March 10 with their Japanese counterparts and local officials at an unprecedented symposium on the outskirts of Koriyama.

The Ukrainian city of Pripyat near the Chornobyl nuclear plant is still abandoned to this day.
The Ukrainian city of Pripyat near the Chornobyl nuclear plant is still abandoned to this day.
The director of the Research Institute of Radiology in Belarus, Viktar Averin, says he wants to share the knowledge acquired since the 1986 Chornobyl nuclear accident in the former Soviet Union.

"I would like to note that it is important that the experience of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus is used by you -- most of all, for those people who stayed, are living, or are returning to this area, so that they can live here safely and so that the fruits of their labors bring economic benefits," Averin says.

He offers a practical tip: an organo-mettalic compound called ferrocene is effective in reducing radiation contamination in milk and poultry.

Rudolf Aleksakhin of the Russian Academy of Sciences says it took nearly 20 years to reduce the land contamination to safer levels after the Chornobyl explosion.

Aleksakhin explains that given the large area of the contaminated land in Eastern Europe, it was impossible to effectively use absorbents or remove topsoil. But he says that for Fukushima -- with a smaller area vital to Japanese agriculture -- these will be effective methods.

Soil Problems

Another sobering science lesson for the Japanese concerns the soil.

European peat effectively absorbed the Chornobyl radiation, limiting transmission to crops. But Japan's soil is sandy, so the absorption rate will be less.

A top official at the Science and Technology Center of Ukraine, Viktor Korsun, contends the Japanese accident demonstrates the lessons of Chornobyl were not sufficiently recognized -- namely, that aging nuclear plants need stricter scrutiny and better safeguards.

"Human beings the world over continued and continue to be at great risk," Korsun says. "We must recognize that the work of this conference is vital for the future of mankind."

Japan's Environment Ministry is to begin a full-scale decontamination program next month. But that will also generate a new dilemma: where to place the removed radioactive soil?

There is an enormous accumulation of radioactive ash from incinerators and a huge amount of debris from the magnitude-9 earthquake and the tsunami one year ago, and residents in other regions are fighting against having it relocated to their communities.

That has prompted the Environment Ministry to launch a national campaign with the slogan "Everyone's effort is needed for debris disposal."

So far, there is little evidence the message is finding a sympathetic audience.

Steve Herman is a correspondent for Voice of America