By David McNeill and Miguel Quintana
Across much of Fukushima’s rolling green countryside they descend on homes like antibodies around a virus, men wielding low-tech tools against a very modern enemy: radiation. Power hoses, shovels and mechanical diggers are used to scour toxins that rained down from the sky nearly 31 months ago. The job is exhausting, expensive and, say some, doomed to failure.
A sweating four-man crew wearing surgical masks and boiler suits cleans the home of Saito Hiroshi (71) and his wife Terue (68). Their aim is to bring average radiation at this home down to 1.5 microsieverts an hour, still several times what it was before the accident but safe enough, perhaps, for Saito’s seven grandchildren to visit. “My youngest grandchild has never been here,” he says. Since 2011, the family reunites in Soma, around 20 km away.
For a few days during March 2011, after a string of explosions at the Daiichi nuclear plant roughly 25 kilometers to the south, rain and snow laced with radiation fell across this area, contaminating thousands of acres of rich farming land and forests Over 160,000 people near the plant were ordered to evacuate. The Saito’s home fell a few miles outside the 20-km compulsory evacuation zone, but like thousands of others they left voluntarily. When they returned two weeks later their neat, two-story country house appeared undamaged but it was blanketed in an invisible poison only detectable with beeping Geiger counters.
The price tag for cleaning a heavily mountainous and wooded area roughly half the size of Rhode Island (2000 sq. km) has government heads spinning. In August, experts from the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology put the total cost of decontamination at $50 billion. Many experts believe that figure is too low. Ironically, much of the responsibility for the cleanup has been handed over to the nuclear and construction powerhouses that built the Daiichi plant with all its design failures: Toshiba and Hitachi, Taisei Corporation and Kajima Corporation.
Radiation levels in most areas of Fukushima have dropped by around 40 percent since the disaster began, according to central government estimates, but those figures are widely disbelieved. Official monitoring posts almost invariably give lower readings than hand-held Geiger counters, the result of a deliberate strategy of misinformation, say critics. “They remove the ground under the posts, pour some clean sand, lay down concrete, plus a metal plate and put the monitoring post on top,” says Ito Nobuyoshi, a farmer who opted to stay behind in the heavily contaminated village of Iitate and record the impact of radiation on crops, animal life – and himself. “The device ends up 1.5 meters from the ground.”
The Fukushima cleanup, however, faces another, perhaps insurmountable challenge: securing sites to store contaminated soil, leaves and sludge. Many landowners balk at hosting “interim” dumps – in principle for three years – until the central government builds a mid-term storage facility. Local governments throughout Japan have refused to accept the toxic waste, meaning it will probably stay in Fukushima for good. The waste is stored under blue tarpaulins across much of the prefecture, sometimes close to schools and homes.