They were going to burn it in Kyoto in the annual "Gozan no Okuribi" - ceremonial bonfire to send off the spirits of the dead at the end of Bon Festival. It was going to be burned for the people who died in the disaster-affected area, particularly in Rikuzen Takata City in Iwate Prefecture, where the firewood was made from the fallen pine trees.
When the news first broke of the plan to use the firewood from Rikuzen Takata City in Iwate, 185 km north of Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant, concerned Kyoto residents protested, fearing the spread of radioactive materials by burning the wood. The residents were roundly scolded for being selfish, uncaring, insensitive to the people who suffered so much in the earthquake/tsunami of March 11.
Then, on August 10, radioactive cesium was detected, as high as 1,480 becquerels/kg, from the debris in Rikuzen Takata City.
Someone decided to test the new batch of firewood that came from Rikuzen Takata City on August 11, and they turned out to be radioactive. Not much, in the current radioactive state of things in Japan, as it was "only" 1,130 becquerels/kg of radioactive cesium.
Kyoto City has decided not to use the firewood after all. But the city is being scolded for overreacting and "culturally insensitive". Kyoto? Culturally insensitive?
From Yomiuri Shinbun (12:06AM 8/13/2011):
"Just when we thought we were all going to do it..." On August 12, Kyoto City decided not to burn the firewood made from the pine trees from Rikuzen Takata City in Iwate prefecture because of radioactive cesium detected from the firewood. The firewood was to be burned in the "Kyoto Gozan no Okuribi" bonfire [on August 16]. Organizers of the event in Kyoto City were disappointed and perplexed.
Kyoto City Mayor Daisaku Kadokawa apologized, "I am heart-broken for having disappointed people in Rikuzen Takata City and in the disaster-affected areas. I sincerely apologize to people who have put in tremendous effort in making it happen." The mayor repeated, "there is no national safety standard for firewood. I urge the national government to create the safety standard as soon as possible."
The firewood was provided by an NPO "Fukui Disaster Volunteer Net" in Sakai City in Fukui Prefecture. The head of the NPO, Misao Higashikado doesn't know what to do. He planned the proceeds from the sale of the firewood to go to the disaster relief effort, and in May his organization collected the pine trees felled in the March 11 tsunami from "Takata Matsubara", a national scenic spot, and started to sell the firewood made from the pine trees. The shipment just started in mid July. He says every piece of the firewood has been tested one by one by a simple testing, and that no radioactive materials have been detected. "I am bewildered by the turn of events. We just wanted to help the recovery in the disaster-affected area", he says.
The head of this NPO, Misao Higashikado, is also an Assemblyman in the Fukui Prefectural Assembly.
The mayor of Kyoto City sounds like he would order the burning as soon as there's a national safety limit for firewood, even if that limit is 8,000 becquerels/kg or 100,000 becquerels/kg. (Well, there is no filter that could trap radioactive materials in the open-air burning like this.)
The so-called radiation experts are still excoriating Kyoto City and its residents for insensitivity, according to Mainichi Shinbun Japanese (8/12/2011):
One of them, Otsura Niwa, professor emeritus at Kyoto University (radiation biology) and the main committee member of the International Commission on Radiological Protection (ICRP) says:
"Even if one ate 1 kilogram of the bark [they tested the bark] and it were all absorbed in the body, the radiation level would be negligible. It's a meaningless pursuit of cleanliness that tramples down the feelings of the people in the disaster-affected area."
Another one, Ikuro Anzai, professor emeritus at Ritsumeikan University, even if his specialty is radiation protection, accuses people in Kyoto (of all people in Japan...) of destroying the cultural tradition of Japan:
"'Gozan no Okuribi' is a traditional religious ceremony. I suspect the radiation was taken as uncleanliness or defilement. This is not the matter of science but of culture. It should be solved culturally, and the memorial ceremony for the deceased should be performed."
Professor Anzai, radiation contamination is indeed uncleanliness, and it cannot be cleaned by spreading it all over Kyoto. The memorial ceremony for the deceased can be performed without burning the radioactive firewood over the city of Kyoto. I do not believe the deceased in the disaster-affected areas would want to spread the radiation unnecessarily.
Not to be outdone by the specialists, the mayor of Rikuzen Takata City chimes in:
To Kyoto City, the mayor said, "It has spread the baseless rumor [that the firewood from Rikuzen Takata is radioactive - never mind it is], and that has inconvenienced people in the disaster-affected areas and residents in Kyoto City. I would have liked the city to proceed more cautiously."
Here we go. Radioactive firewood is just another "baseless rumor".