Years without forestry education as Fukushima decontamination fails

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The March 2011 meltdown at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant severely damaged surrounding forests. Even now, 11 years after the accident, little has been done to decontaminate them.

In some regions, projects are underway to restore satoyamaareas of mountain forest maintained by residents of adjacent communities, but atmospheric radiation levels in these areas are still not low enough for children to enter safely, according to a local community leader.

One such area is Yamakiya District in Kawamata City, Fukushima Prefecture. The forest hiking trails of Daini Oyako no Mori are blanketed in snow and the sunny slopes are lined with zelkovas.

Yellow and pink vinyl wrapped around the trees indicates the year they were planted by local elementary school students. At the end of March, it will be five years since the evacuation order for Yamakiya district was lifted. But even now the children’s voices have not returned to the mountains.

In 2016, satoyama restoration projects were started in the prefecture to improve the forest environment. Decontamination, reforestation and radiation monitoring were carried out in an integrated manner in mountainous and forested areas that had been used by residents.

The projects were carried out based on the comprehensive forest restoration policy of Fukushima Prefecture, jointly developed by the Reconstruction Agency, the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries and the Ministry of Environment. A total of approximately 800 hectares in 14 municipalities were selected as model areas, including forest parks and walking paths, where fallen leaves and other sediments were removed and cleared.

Toshio Hirono looks at a sign announcing the planting of a memorial tree by the Yamakiya Primary School Forest Club at the entrance to Daini Oyako no Mori Forest in Kawamata, Fukushima Prefecture. | FUKUSHIMA MINPO

In the past, the Yamakiya Elementary School Forestry Club was active in Daini Oyako no Mori. But since the nuclear accident, the forest had not been maintained and was in a dilapidated state – with thickets growing on the planted zelkova.

The city and local residents chose Daini Oyako no Mori as the project site to revive the area as a site where children could study forestry. The project was launched in December 2016, before the planned lifting of the Yamakiya District evacuation order at the end of March 2017.

The project covers an area of ​​approximately 2 hectares. In fiscal 2016 and 2017, planted cedars and zelkovas were thinned and cleared, and fallen trees due to snow were removed. Logs were strewn on the slopes to control runoff from the topsoil.

Decontamination work was carried out in fiscal year 2018. Fallen leaves and branches and other accumulated organic matter were removed from areas covering 5,595 square meters of forest, including an open plaza and walking trails. Zelkova trees could die if their surfaces were stripped, so work focused on clearing grass and thickets.

By comparing the radiation levels in September 2018, before the decontamination works, and in November of the same year, after the works, the average radiation level in the open place had been reduced by 22%, to 0.69 microsievert per time. Based on the result, the central government concluded that “the decontamination work has helped create an enabling environment for the resumption of forest survey activities.”

However, even after the decontamination process, atmospheric radiation levels were far from the central government’s long-term target of 0.23 microsieverts per hour. At some monitoring points, radiation levels exceeded 1 microsievert per hour.

“The area is not ready for the return of children,” said Toshio Hirono, 71, head of Yamakiya Elementary School Forestry Club.

Residents are demanding that the forest, where children once enjoyed the greenery, be restored to its original state.

The forestry club, which carried out its main work in Daini Oyako no Mori, was known both inside and outside the prefecture for its progressive activities that took advantage of the abundant natural resources. At the entrance to the forest, a sign points to a memorial tree planting by the group to mark a national commendation they received.

The children belonged to the group from the fourth to the sixth grade and their activities were diverse. They processed thinned cedar trees to create a walking path in their school’s front yard, built bridges over a river and moats in the nearby mountains, and made a hand mallet to pound rice cakes. They learned the importance of nature by picking mushrooms and tara buds, and eating rice cakes kneaded with burdock leaves.

These activities stopped after the nuclear accident at Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings Inc.’s Fukushima No. 1 Power Plant. Before the accident, Yamakiya Elementary School had 30 to 40 children. But the number of children has decreased due to the establishment of an evacuation zone, and the school has been closed since fiscal year 2019.

“If it hadn’t been for the nuclear accident, there would have been so much more I wanted to do,” Hirono said.

Hirono has been the third leader of the group for about 20 years, without the possibility of passing on his position to a successor due to the suspension of its activities. He believes that although Daini Oyako no Mori has been decontaminated, the radiation level has not dropped enough.

“If there is even a slight concern, we cannot allow our children to go to the mountains,” he said with a sigh.

Even after the model project is over, Hirono continues to voluntarily clear the undergrowth along the walking trails each fall. He understands that decontaminating all of the city’s forests will not be easy, but believes that unless radiation levels in the surrounding areas of Daini Oyako no Mori are lowered, residents will not be reassured.

“It is the responsibility of the central government to decontaminate until the residents are satisfied,” he said.

This section introduces topics and issues covered by Fukushima Minpo, the largest newspaper in the prefecture. The original articles were published on February 22 and 23.

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