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The Importance of Transparency in Public Procurement: The Case of a Japanese Waste-Disposal Project After the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake

article is part of a series to be published at PA TIMES Online
during the month of March under the topic of “Emergency Preparedness and Disaster Recovery on the Anniversary of the Japanese Earthquake and Tsunami.”

We are still accepting articles for this topic and all
others on the
2012 PA TIMES Online Editorial Calendar. Email Editor Christine Jewett McCrehin at [email protected] for more information or a copy of our submission guidelines.

Satoru Tanaka

After large-scale natural disasters, governments must procure enormous amounts of supplies of many sorts without delay. Since the Tohoku Earthquake, which occurred on March 11, 2011, the Japanese government has had to carry out various types of procurement on a large scale. Of these, one of the most important is the procurement of services and avenues to dispose of disaster waste. According to the Japanese Ministry of the Environment (current situation of disposal of disaster waste in disaster-stricken areas, Feb. 20, 2012), the amount of physical waste created by the disaster is estimated to reach 22,530,000 t, which is 10–20 times the amount of waste produced annually in disaster-stricken areas in normal times. Because the removal of this waste is essential to recovery from the disaster, the Japanese government formulated a master plan for waste disposal (Ministry of the Environment, Guidelines (master plan) for disaster waste management after the Great East Japan Earthquake, May 16, 2011; this document is available in English), and has made efforts to implement this project effectively. Interested readers can see pictures that show the current situation of the waste in temporary storage spaces here.

However, this project faces great difficulties, because radioactive materials emitted by the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant have contaminated much of the wastes produced by the disaster. Although Japanese law did not anticipate the presence of radioactive waste outside nuclear power plants or make provisions to dispose of it, the Japanese government formulated guidelines (Ministry of the Environment, Guideline for disposing of disaster waste in Fukushima Prefecture, June 23, 2011) to dispose of this waste. According to the guidelines, residue from the incineration of the disaster waste with an estimated concentration of radioactive materials (Cs) lower than 8,000 Bq/Kg, the waste can be disposed of as normal waste. Since the concentration is greatly increased in the burning process, the government estimates that this safety level is met when the concentration of radioactive materials in combustible waste is lower than 100Bq/Kg. This plan applies not only in Fukushima Prefecture but nationwide.

In order to dispose of disaster waste as quickly as possible, the Japanese government plans to dispose of it not only in disaster-stricken prefectures but also in other prefectures. Thus, the government has asked local governments in 43 prefectures to receive disaster waste. Although 572 local governments in 42 prefectures showed positive attitudes toward helping dispose of the waste in April 2011, only 54, in 11 prefectures, still agreed to receive the waste in October 2011, due to the detection of radioactive materials that did not meet Japanese safety standards for settled areas (Asahi Shimbun, November 2, 2011). In fact, in regions where local government had shown a positive attitude to receiving disaster waste, a storm of protest by groups of residents who oppose the waste-disposal plan has erupted. In this situation, many local governments that had previously taken a neutral stance to the plan hesitated to clarify their position. As a result, the national government’s waste-disposal projects come up against unexpected difficulties.

The argument of the opposition groups seems to be divided into two parts. The first is that radioactive disaster waste should not be brought into areas outside disaster-stricken prefectures. However, there are some radioactive materials in the natural environment at all times. In addition, according to the Ministry of the Environment’s Guidelines for promoting wide-area processing of disaster waste (August 11, 2011; revised on January 11), the highest concentration of radioactive fly ash in disaster-stricken prefectures (outside Fukushima Prefecture) was 3,450 Bq/Kg (Rikuzentakata City, Iwate Prefecture), which is much lower than the safety limit of 8,000 Bq/Kg. Therefore, this argument overestimates the health risk posed by radioactive materials, although concerns remain.

The other main argument against waste-sharing casts doubt on the adequacy of regulations, suggesting that the set safe levels may not be safe enough. Some opponents even insist that the Japanese government may be concealing information that could complicate disaster waste disposal. Obviously, this argument reflects mistrust of the Japanese government. It is well known that the government initially withheld information about the radioactive materials emitted from Fukushima Daiichi. This inadequate disclosure has contributed to a situation in which many Japanese people have a strong mistrust of government, leading waste-disposal efforts to stagnate.

Therefore, in order to dispose of the disaster waste, it is critically important for government to recover the people’s trust. Although restoring public trust will be very hard work for the government, it must pursue a narrow path of disclosing related information in a timely and thorough fashion. In this context, we should consider the story of one small local government, that of the city of Shimada in Shizuoka Prefecture. This local government is one of the few that showed a positive attitude toward the disposal of disaster waste. In order to persuade local opponents, the mayor promised a test burning of waste from Yamada-cho in Iwate Prefecture to ensure the safety of disposal, as well as the disclosure of radioactivity of emissions from the process. In addition, residents themselves are able to measure radiation dose with Geiger counters. According to the The Mainichi Daily News, the (preliminary) concentration of radioactive materials from the test burning, which was executed on February 16-17, was 64 Bq/Kg.

There is no telling whether this action will help quell fears about the disposal project. However, the Japanese government’s current dilemma teaches us once again the following simple lesson: it is essential to ensure the transparency of government actions in order to achieve effective public procurement.

Satoru Tanaka is a professor at Kobe City University of Foreign Studies. His teaching and research interests are in industrial organization and public procurement. He is researching the economic significance of public procurement in Japan after the Tohoku Earthquake. Email: [email protected]

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