” Critics say Japan’s government is engaged in a vast, duplicitous and fruitless campaign to decontaminate Fukushima Prefecture.
David McNeill and Miguel Quintana in Fukushima, Japan
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.
Saito Hitoshi and Teruo
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.
Nobody knows for certain how dangerous the radiation is. Japan’s central government refined its policy in December 2011, defining evacuation zones as “areas where cumulative dose levels might reach 20 millisieverts per year,” the typical worldwide limit for nuclear power plant engineers. The worst radiation is supposed to be confined to the 20-km exclusion zone, but it dispersed unevenly: less than 5km north of the Daiichi plant, our Geiger counter shows less than 5 millisieverts a year; 40km northwest, in parts of Iitate Village, it is well over 120 millisieverts.
Those 160,000 people, most of whom left with nothing on a freezing cold night in March 2011, have not returned and are scattered throughout Japan, and as far away as Europe and North America. The nuclear diaspora is swelled by thousands of voluntary refugees. Local governments are spending millions of dollars to persuade them to come back, dividing the cleanup with the central government, which handles the most toxic areas.
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. … ”