By / via latimes.com / March 11, 2015 / Neon pink and yellow banners flutter along the roadsides, their gentle flapping breaking an eerie stillness. The houses here are shut tight, the streets are nearly deserted, the fields that once sprouted rice, tomatoes and cucumbers are fallow.
Shigeo Karimata dons a hard hat and a mask and prepares to get out of his car.
“Some people say, ‘Oh, it looks like a festival!’” says the avuncular 62-year-old Environment Ministry worker. “Then they see the writing on the flags: ‘Decontamination Work in Progress.’”
A colleague pulls out a radiation-measuring machine. “0.29 microsieverts,” he says, looking at the readout. “Not too high.”
Shigeo Karimata is in charge of the work here in an evacuation zone about 12 miles north of the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant—part of the most extensive, and expensive, nuclear cleanup ever attempted.
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.
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.
Four years after the Great Tohoku Earthquake shook northern Japan to its core, touched off a deadly tsunami and precipitated the Fukushima Dai-ichi disaster, hundreds of square miles remain off-limits for habitation due to radioactivity. Some 79,000 people still cannot return home.
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.
The sheer manpower and money dedicated to the house-to-house effort is staggering: In the last four years, the government has spent $13.5 billion on decontamination efforts outside the nuclear plant, and the budget request for the fiscal year starting in April is another $3.48 billion, said Seiji Tsutsui, director of the international cooperation office for radioactive decontamination at the Environment Ministry.
At the peak, some 18,000 people were doing decontamination work; as of early February, that number had dropped to 12,000. But around Minamisoma, there are still so many workers that residents in the northern part of town – which is not under evacuation orders – complain of heavy traffic as laborers commute to job sites and orange, yellow and turquoise backhoes and other equipment is moved from field to field.
The fruits of the laborers’ efforts are stacked in those giant sacks—5.5 million of them and counting. They are spread out across Fukushima province, along roadsides, in parking lots and backyards. They are tagged and bar-coded so authorities know what’s inside and how radioactive it is – and when the bags might start to wear out.
As the bags pile up and workers fan out across the landscape, some locals are questioning the cost-benefit analysis.
“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.
Even before the disaster, the region was rapidly aging and losing young residents to Tokyo and other urban centers. Many of those who want to return home are senior citizens. Decontamination efforts may allow them to go back, but there’s little guarantee that their communities won’t die out anyhow within a few decades.
“Some people have already given up. I don’t think most people will come back,” concedes Karimata. “After the evacuation, many people wanted to return, but it’s been four years, and now it’s maybe half. The longer it takes, the more the numbers will be reduced.”