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Fukushima Clean-Up: Leave it to the Experts... Or Not

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As the radioactive clean-up following the disaster at Fukushima gets under way, the close relationship between the nuclear industry and the Japanese government becomes more obvious.

I say this following the news that the initial contracts, worth $13 billion, are being handed out to giant construction companies with no expertise in radiation clean-up at all. They are the same construction companies that built 45 of the 54 nuclear reactors in Japan, including the ill-fated Fukushima.

As one day worker admitted, "we are all amateurs. Nobody really knows how to clean up radiation."

Worryingly, it is not even known if the unproven clean-up methods being employed will be effective.

Fumiyasu Hirai, a spokesman for one of the construction companies contracted to clean up the radiated area, which covers 8,000 square miles, tried to offer assurances by saying "we are building expertise as we work. It is a process of trial and error, but we are well-equipped for the job."

Mmmmmmm... a word of advice, the phrase "a process of trial and error" aren't the most comforting of words, especially when the difference between success and failure of those "trials" could result in illness and death from radiation poisoning.

Kiyoshi Sakurai, a nuclear industry critic and former researcher at what is now the Japan Atomic Energy Agency, said that "decontamination is becoming big business." The construction companies are being paid to clean up the mess resulting from their own "products." As Sakurai says, "the Japanese nuclear industry is run so that the more you fail, the more money you receive."

In fact, decontamination has become such big money that some companies such as the Maeda Corporation are willing to take clean-up contracts as a loss leader, just to get their foot in the door for future work.

Katsumasa Seimaru, an official from the Environment Ministry, has given us an insight into the thinking behind contracting the inexperienced construction companies to carry out this complicated process. The government believe that the large companies are best equipped to gather the necessary manpower and oversee large decontamination projects such as scrubbing mountains and highways. "Whether you promoted nuclear or not beforehand isn't as important as what you can do to help with the cleanup."

The problem is though that there is still no agreement as to which methods will prove effective for removing radiation. Yoichi Tao, a professor of physics at Kogakuin University, is helping villagers test clean-up methods and said that "no experts yet exist in decontamination."

The villagers from the contaminated region are especially interested in finding the best ways for removing the radiation, and believe that the whole process should first start in the forested mountains. Muneo Kanno, a 60-year-old farmer, commented that "even if they clean up our homes, the radiation will sweep down from the mountains again and re-contaminate everything."

Fukushima will be the first, large-scale, full nuclear clean-up ever, so Japan really has nothing to follow, there are no rules, no "how-to" guide, and therefore they can only be judged on their results.

Let's hope that they are successful.

James Burgess is an analyst with Oilprice.com. He is a successful small cap investor with a focus on early stage renewable energy companies. More of his articles can be found on his authors page at Oilprice.com.

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