NARAHA, Japan — In this small farming town in the evacuation zone surrounding the stricken Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, small armies of workers in surgical masks and rubber gloves are busily scraping off radioactive topsoil in a desperate attempt to fulfill the central government’s vow one day to allow most of Japan’s 83,000 evacuees to return. Yet, every time it rains, more radioactive contamination cascades down the forested hillsides along the rugged coast.
The triple meltdown at Fukushima in 2011 is already considered the world’s worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl. The new efforts, as risky and technically complex as they are expensive, were developed in response to a series of accidents, miscalculations and delays that have plagued the cleanup effort, making a mockery of the authorities’ early vows to “return the site to an empty field” and leading to the release of enormous quantities of contaminated water.
As the environmental damage around the plant and in the ocean nearby continues to accumulate more than two years after the disaster, analysts are beginning to question whether the government and the plant’s operator, known as Tepco, have the expertise and ability to manage such a complex crisis.
“Japan is clearly living in denial,” said Kiyoshi Kurokawa, a medical doctor who led Parliament’s independent investigation last year into the causes of the nuclear accident. “Water keeps building up inside the plant, and debris keeps piling up outside of it. This is all just one big shell game aimed at pushing off the problems until the future.”
In view of that, some experts dismiss the current cleanup plans as just a way of defending the status quo by convincing the public that the damage can be undone, and that more drastic steps, like paying more compensation to displaced residents or permanently shutting the nation’s other nuclear power plants, are unnecessary.
“This is just a tactic to avoid taking responsibility,” said Harutoshi Funabashi, a sociologist at Hosei University who led a critical examination of the recovery efforts by the Science Council of Japan, a group of about 2,000 academics. “Admitting that no one can live near the plant for a generation would open the way for all sorts of probing questions and doubts.”