What to Do About Debris from Disaster-Stricken Areas
Figuring out how to effectively dispose of debris is essential to the rebuilding effort in the areas stricken by the Great East Japan Earthquake. Below is a reprint of an article I wrote on the subject that was carried in the March 8 issue of the daily Mainichi Shimbun
I do not know whether Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda has read my article, and it would be arrogant of me to assume so, but on March 13, a few days after its publication, the Asahi Shimbun
reported in its evening edition that the prime minister issued orders on disaster waste disposal.
Many people believe Japanese prime ministers wield little power, but this is not true. The country’s leaders are in a position to resolve most problems, if they just show resolution and determination when making decisions.
I hope Prime Minister Noda displays the strong leadership needed to steer the country through difficult times.
The Debris Disposal Target Won’t Be Achieved at this Rate:
Treat Disaster Waste as a Reusable Resource
“Kore ga iitai” (This Is What I Have To Say) column, Mainichi Shimbun, March 8, 2012
Almost a year has passed since the Great East Japan Earthquake, but Ganbare Tohoku
(Stay strong, Tohoku), kizuna
(bonds of friendship), tsunagari
(connections), and other such expressions of support can still be heard regularly. The burden borne by the affected areas should be shared, and actions rather than words are what will encourage the victims of the disaster.
The mountain of debris that has piled up in the disaster-hit areas stands in the way of reconstruction efforts. Iwate Prefecture has 4.76 million tons of debris, equivalent to 11 years of normal household waste; Miyagi Prefecture has 15.69 million tons, or 19 years; and Fukushima has 2.08 million tons. Less than 10% of the debris in Iwate and Miyagi prefectures, which are targeted by the government’s wide-area disposal of debris plan, has been removed. The debris in Fukushima will be disposed of within the prefecture, but the situation is complicated by the problem of decontamination work, and there too the future is cloaked in uncertainty.
At present, only the Tokyo metropolitan government, Yamagata Prefecture, and a few other places have agreed to accept debris from Iwate and Miyagi. The governors of Kanagawa and Shizuoka prefectures and the mayor of Hachinohe City in Aomori Prefecture, which have already expressed willingness to cooperate, have also signed on with the Combining Strength for Disaster Waste Disposal project. I hope that many more local governments will take part.
Many municipalities refuse to accept debris because they think any level of radiation is intolerable. But radiation is found all around us in nature. Reconstruction work cannot go forward if the debris is not removed, and a failure to do so will invariably sow the seeds of discrimination against the quake-hit areas. What we need now are leaders who can take a firm stand and convince the public this is the right thing to do.
Even with widespread cooperation, the government will likely not reach its March 2014 goal for the completion of debris disposal. The amount of disaster waste is expected to surge, as buildings damaged by the quake are torn down and trees wither as a result of saltwater from the tsunami.
Even today, the city of Ishinomaki City in Miyagi Prefecture has more than six million tons of debris at its dump sites. Methane gas is building up on the inside of the mountains of debris as they decompose, which in turn poses an environmental hazard.
The wide-area debris disposal concept alone will not solve the problem. An additional plan of action is needed. I believe that instead of viewing the debris as a menace, we should look at it as an effective resource for rebuilding that can be used to create land and for other purposes.
After the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake in 1995, about half of the 20 million tons of debris left by the disaster was put to use for land reclamation. And in 1923, after the Great Kanto Earthquake, an enormous amount of debris and burned soil was used to create the land for Yamashita Park, a popular spot in Yokohama today. After World War II, Germany also reportedly used debris from collapsed structures and even tank parts for the creation of parks and other reconstruction efforts.
This time, however, we have a new issue to deal with: contaminated debris. The heart of the dispute is the incinerated ash that meets the 8,000 becquerels of cesium or less per kilogram standard required for burying. This level does not, I think, pose any danger. In terms of millisieverts, a measure of the effect of radiation on the human body, 8,000 becquerels is less than one millisievert a year. In September 2011 experts from around the world gathered in Fukushima for an international symposium organized by Nippon Foundation on radiation and its health risks, and it was pointed out that even a figure of 20 millisieverts a year annually poses no risk.
There are many ways debris can be used to meet demand for timber, concrete blocks, and earth and sand for raising the ground level in areas where subsidence has occurred or for creating high ground. In the case of wood, it makes more sense to bury it and let it decompose naturally rather than burn it, since the latter produces carbon dioxide.
Akira Miyawaki, a plant ecologist active internationally and professor emeritus at Yokohama National University, has come up with a similar but more detailed proposal. Miyawaki suggests that holes be dug in the disaster-stricken areas to bury debris after dangerous materials have been removed from it. The area would be shaped into a mound on which broadleaved evergreen trees would be planted. Within 15 or 20 years, these mounds would grow into forests that can stop or slow down the course of a tsunami.
The quake-stricken area encompasses an enormous expanse of land, and there are many suitable spots for this purpose. I firmly believe it is an idea well worth considering.
Prime Minister Noda Calls for the Full Use of Disaster Debris at a Cabinet Meeting
Proposed Uses Include Protective Coastal Forests and Areas of Higher Ground
Asahi Shimbun, evening edition, March 13, 2012
Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda organized the first Ministerial Meeting on the Advancement of Disaster Waste Management on March 13. The prime minister said he wants local governments to go beyond existing conceptual frameworks and find bold and new ways to use the debris. He described how debris from the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 was used to create Yamashita Park in Yokohama City and indicated that he would like to use the disaster debris to protect people from future tsunamis by developing mounds for coastal forests, higher evacuation areas, and roads.
After the meeting, Minister of the Environment Goshi Hosono stated that the government would undertake debris removal activities while praying for the repose of the departed souls of people who lost their lives in the quake. He also announced that the government will soon begin building coastal forests and the Environment Ministry has decided it will use the debris to build a new national park that would serve as a symbol of reconstruction, tentatively named Sanriku Reconstruction National Park, by reorganizing a number of natural parks in the area.
The ministers confirmed a plan to request the cooperation of private firms in the cement, paper manufacturing, and other industries with incinerator facilities. Later that day the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry sent a letter to a number of business organizations asking for their cooperation. According to the ministry, as of February 20, about 10 tons of debris have been reused by private firms, with cement companies employing sludge in the production of cement and paper producers using wood scraps as fuel for boilers.
The ministers also confirmed a plan by the government to make a formal written request to prefectures and specially designated cities for their cooperation in disposing of the debris. Local entities that are willing to cooperate will be asked to accept a certain type and amount of debris from a specified locale.
Just 6.7% of the 22.53 tons of debris generated in the three disaster affected prefectures has been disposed of thus far. There is not enough room at the disposal sites, and fears of tainted materials are an obstacle to disposal of the debris over a wide area. Only the Tokyo metropolitan government, Yamagata Prefecture, and Aomori Prefecture have begun the full-scale acceptance of this rubble.