As if the Japanese government did not have enough on its hands, now it has this dilemma: What to do with as many as 1,000 bodies near the leaking Fukushima nuclear plant that may be contaminated with radiation.
A solution will require decisive action and a high-degree of delicacy.
After losing family members to the tsunami and earthquake, most Japanese would normally go forward with a traditional cremation and place the remains with those of the victims' kin. But the bodies near the plant have been exposed to radiation, making them potentially dangerous to handle or move. And nearly a month after the disaster, decontaminating them so they can be transported is rapidly becoming impossible.
The earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan on March 11 badly damaged the Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear power plant owned by Tokyo Electric Power Co., or TEPCO. As the crisis around the plant built, the Japanese government called for evacuation of residents living within 12 miles of the damaged plant, which is now essentially a no-go zone.
Does the government have a plan?
Emergency responders have been struggling ever since to cool the plant’s reactors and prevent a catastrophic meltdown. But several explosions, fires and discharged water from the plant have released radiation into the air and ocean near the plant, affecting anyone who remains in the area — including the dead.
If the Japanese government has a plan for the bodies in “hot zone,” it has not been made public. The Japanese Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, which is in charge of disposition of disaster victims' remains, did not respond to msnbc.com queries on the subject and has said very little about it.
For the first three days of April, some 25,000 Japanese and American troops mounted a massive search for thousands of dead or missing residents. But they did not enter the 12-mile “exclusion zone” around the Fukushima plant, according to the Japanese government.
The International Atomic Energy Agency, which is working closely with the Japanese government to monitor radiation in the water and food, does not know how Japanese authorities plan to deal with the Fukushima victims.
“This is an area of concern that the IAEA and other UN organizations have been seeking clarification and information about from Japan,” said a spokesperson for the IAEA.
Safe handling of the bodies may not allow for cremation according to Japanese tradition — yet another blow to people who have endured losses from the quake, the tsunami and evacuation due to the ongoing crisis at the plant.
'Worst case' scenario for survivors
“They say the worst case is when you don’t have anything to bury or cremate, that’s why the surviving family members are desperate,” said Kyoko Tokuno, senior lecturer of East Asian religions at University of Washington in Seattle. “What they want to do is bring back the remains, which presumes finding the body and cremating them.”
Internationally, there are various protocols on managing all types of materials contaminated with radiation, including bodies.
Two sets made available to msnbc.com — a 1,000-page protocol issued by the National Council on Radiation Safety in the United States and similar guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control — urge against cremation, calling instead for deep burial in a sealed container marked by radiation warning symbols.
The NCRS does describe a way of decontaminating a body that could make it safe for cremation, especially if, like the victims in Fukushima, the body was contaminated externally only.
“If it’s a surface contamination as this probably was … normally you could wash it off or wipe it off and remove clothing, to remove most of the contamination,” said Kathryn Higley, head of the Department of Nuclear Engineering and Radiation Health Physics at Oregon State University. “But the body decomposes, so it might be more complicated.”
Bodies likely 'not intact'
After more than three weeks outside, bodies of quake-tsunami victims would be “not skeletonized, but not intact, either,” according to a California forensic scientist, who spoke on condition that he not be identified.
Two workers who were killed at the nuclear power plant were washed, decontaminated, autopsied and cremated, a Japanese nuclear physician told msnbc.com on condition of anonymity.
Other reports suggest decontamination has already become impractical, or impossible in some cases.
Japan’s Kyodo news service reported that the police in Fukushima put off collecting remains of the dead after measuring an extremely high level of radiation on the body of a man found on March 27.
“Police were considering performing decontamination where the bodies are found,” the report said. But another Kyodo report four days later said that “there are some difficulties around cleansing the bodies, resulting in damaging the already decomposing victims.”
Even identification is going to be difficult, according to the Kyodo report:
“The victims’ nails can be extracted for DNA testing for identification, however, nails also need to be decontaminated and this will take tremendous amount of work and time,” it said.
Cremation believed to release karmic energy
Cremation is important to Japanese Buddhists because it is thought to release the karmic energy that continues on and leads to future rebirth. That belief, and Japan’s severe shortage of land for graveyards, means that nearly all Japanese are cremated after death.
Perhaps even more critical is the idea of recovering the bones so that they can be placed in the family tomb, with kin.
“One of the things that is important to people is that family members are buried together,” said Tokuno, the University of Washington lecturer. “To be scattered all over is not comforting. Being buried together … is very comforting.”
For now, the Japanese government is preoccupied with the crisis at the Fukushima reactor, but Tokuno says it will have new problems if it fails to address survivors' concerns.
"If the government and TEPCO do not pay attention and delay the proper treatment of people in terms of basic necessities — including how they treat the deceased in terms of tradition — there may be some serious consequences,” said Tokuno. “I think there will be an outcry.”
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