Fukushima: Radioactive Soil Might Be Used to Build New Roads—and Residents Are Not Happy

Residents of Fukushima, Japan, are rallying against plans to build new roads that use soil exposed to radiation during core meltdowns at the local nuclear plant in 2011.

The Environment Ministry plans to begin trials using the soil next month, with the city of Nihonmatsu as the testing ground, The Japan Times reported.

The project would bury large black bags full of the soil under a 656-foot stretch of the planned road. More than 17,650 cubic feet of soil would be buried at a depth of around 1.6 feet. The bags would then be covered with clean soil to block harmful radiation. Those bags, in turn, would be paved over with asphalt.

Ripped bags containing radioactive soil near Japan's tsunami-crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant on February 11, 2016. REUTERS/Toru Hanai

This represents but a small portion of the roughly 775 million cubic feet of irradiated soil in the prefecture. The 2011 meltdowns, caused by an earthquake and a resulting tsunami, sent radioactive debris spewing over the local area. The material eventually contaminated hundreds of square miles of Fukushima.

The Japanese government has encouraged residents to return to their former homes, but many still believe it is unsafe. Authorities even began withdrawing housing assistance payments to those who left the area after the meltdown, effectively forcing them to return.

Authorities eventually plan to hold all tainted material in temporary storage before transporting it to final disposal spots outside the state, but that could take as long as 30 years. According to a 2016 NPR report, there are around 9 million bags of contaminated soil awaiting disposal.

Because of the huge amount of soil to be disposed of, authorities want to use some of it productively. The Environment Ministry said it would use soil emitting a maximum radiation of 8,000 becquerels per kilogram. The average for soil used in road construction is around 1,000 becquerels per kg. If the trials are successful, the ministry plans to replicate the plans nationwide.

Workers move bags containing radiated soil, leaves and debris from a temporary storage site in Tomioka on February 23, 2015. REUTERS/Toru Hanai

But to the residents whose lives were upended by the 2011 disaster, any amount of excess radiation is too much. A briefing given by the Environment Ministry on Thursday was interrupted by locals opposed to the project, according to The Japan Times.

"Ensuring safety is different from having the public feeling at ease," farmer Bunsaku Takamiya, 62, said. His farm is close to one of the planned roads, and he fears that the proximity of his crops to the soil will stop people from buying his produce. "Don't scatter contaminated soil on roads," shouted another resident during the meeting.

A ministry-linked official told the newspaper that, given the residents' anger, "it's difficult to proceed as is."