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Japan struggles with nuclear decontamination

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Over a year after the nuclear accident triggered by a massive earthquake and tsunami contaminated large swathes of land in northeastern Japan, the future of the largely agricultural area and those who have been evacuated from it remain uncertain.

The Asahi Shimbun newspaper reported on Monday that residents will not be able to return to at least seven of the municipalities around the damaged Daiichi nuclear plant in Fukushima for at least five years.

According to a government report released on Sunday, it is estimated that six of the seven municipalities will have dangerous levels of radiation - above 20 millisieverts of radiation (mSv) per year - for a decade.

Experts have said that this level is considered too high.

Radiation too high

The national government has yet to articulate a decontamination plan for the the areas around the plant, which has continuted to leak contaminated water and experience surges in radiation - so high that even robots could not function inside it at the end of March.

Indeed, a February Greenpeace report showed that in many of the contaminated areas, there was hardly anything in the way of decontamination, and farmers said in March that their fields were laid to waste with highly contaminated soil and no cleanup plan in place.

"It's been a year already, and nothing," organic farmer Muneo Kano, 61, said when asked if the government had made any effort to remove the layer of radioactive soil that blanketed his seven-hectare farm.

"The Japanese government at last recognises that the return to contaminated zones will be far more complex than they originally stated," Jan Vande Putte, radiation expert at Greenpeace International, said on Monday.

"For about a year, they have been creating false expectations to the evacuated population. However, they still miss the point. Tens of thousands of people are still living today in highly contaminated areas...This population gets no help and by giving priority to the return of population to evacuated zones, the government has effectively abandoned this critical group."

He said the government had now admitted that decontamination would be "far more complex that [it] originally said".

Contamination levels

Asahi also reported that Japan's ministry of agriculture, forestry and fisheries has asked food shops to begin following government standards for radioactivity in food, allowing for higher levels of contamination in what they sold.

In the wake of the nuclear disaster, many co-operatives and shops have purchased their own becquerel counters [a piece of equipment that measures radiation in food] as a means of assuring customers that what they are eating is safe.

Hiroshi Tsuchida, head of the body overseeing a group of 33 such co-operatives, told Asahi Shimbun that forcing the shops to adopt higher levels of contamination in what they sold would damage the government's credibility because "consumers don't trust the national standards".

Voter support for Yoshihiko Noda, Japan's prime minister, has dropped to the lowest level since he took office in 2011, a newspaper survey showed on Monday, with the majority of Japanese opposing his plan to restart nuclear reactors.

New taxes unpopular

The Nikkei survey also found that 50 per cent of Japanese oppose Noda's plan to raise the sales tax to 10 per cent by October 2015 to pay for welfare costs and fix public finances.

Support for the government fell to 29 per cent in the survey from 34 per cent a month ago, the lowest since Noda took office in September last year.

The government earlier this month declared two reactors at Kansai Electric Power Co's Ohi nuclear plant safe and said they needed to be restarted to avoid a summer power crunch.

But the Nikkei survey found 54 per cent of people oppose the nuclear restart decision and only 30 per cent support it.

Japan will in coming weeks have no nuclear power for the first time in more than 40 years after last year's Fukushima nuclear crisis, triggered by a massive earthquake and tsunami, has hammered public faith in nuclear power.


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