The scale and complexity of what Japan is trying to do in the aftermath of the 2011 meltdown at Fukushima is mind-boggling. Decontamination plans are being executed for 105 cities, towns and villages affected by the accident at Fukusima Dai-ichi, 140 miles northeast of Tokyo.
Many Japanese regard this massive undertaking as a solemn obligation to right a terrible wrong. Others, even some of the people directly affected, question whether it’s a quixotic waste of resources.
Karimata’s delegation marches up a side street to check on a brigade of laborers wearing gloves, masks, helmets and fluorescent vests with radiation detectors tucked in their chest pockets. Some are spreading fresh soil in the yard of an uninhabited home. Next door, workers are up on a scaffold, preparing to wipe down the roof and gutters.
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Across the street, near a bamboo grove, two men are erecting a plastic frame to support a massive double-lined garbage bag about the size of a hot tub. Dozens of identical black sacks, each weighing about a ton and stuffed with radiation-contaminated soil, leaves, wood chippings and other debris, stretch out behind them, awaiting transport at some uncertain date to a yet-unspecified final resting place.
But unlike the 1986 accident at Chernobyl, where authorities simply declared a 1,000 square-mile no-habitation zone, resettled 350,000 people and essentially decided to let the radiation dissipate over decades or centuries, Japan is attempting to make the Fukushima region livable again. It is an unprecedented effort.
“Decontamination – the activity is endless. The huge amount they are spending, maybe it would be better spent helping residents” resettle elsewhere, says Iwao Hoshi, a former city official in Minamisoma. Unlike tsunami victims whose homes were ruined and realized they had to move on, he says, many radiation evacuees are stuck in limbo, knowing their homes are still standing.
After the disaster, Hoshi coordinated shelter programs but quit government life after his bosses asked him to resume his duties in the tax department a year later. “Sometimes I think the decontamination project is run by the sales department of general contractors,” he adds, puffing on a Lucky Strike cigarette.
In addition to wiping down roofs, gutters and walls, the workers scrape several inches of soil off the most contaminated farmland and replace it. Less-contaminated ground is “turned over” to a depth of 12 to 16 inches. Forest areas are also being attended to as well—within 65 feet of homes. That work is complex, Karimata says, because radioactive material fell on leaves in 2011, and those leaves then dropped to the ground, and have been covered over by several more seasons of detritus.
“Now, if you remove the top layer, radiation actually goes up. There’s also an erosion problem,” he says. “Many people want us to do the whole forest, but it’s expensive and can create more dangers than we have now.”
The Environment Ministry wants to wrap up the cleaning brigades by 2017, but where to put all the material they’ve collected remains a vexing challenge. Authorities recently started construction on a massive specialized landfill in a pink zone just outside the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant. When complete, it is expected to hold between 16 million and 22 million bags of debris – enough to fill about 15 baseball stadiums.
Even if all those details could be worked out immediately, there is still the question of just how to get millions of bags of radioactive debris to the landfill. A 10-ton truck can only carry seven bags at a time. At that rate, transport could take decades. Material might have to be put into fresh bags if they start to break down before they can be moved.
Tatsuhiko Kodama, director of Tokyo University’s Radioisotope Center, who has been recruited by Minamisoma to chair its Committee to Promote Decontamination, says the government’s plan is “nearly impossible” and makes no sense.