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 30 months ago. The job is exhausting, expensive and, according to some, doomed to failure.
Today, a sweating four-man crew wearing surgical masks and boiler suits labours in 32 degree heat at the home of Hiroshi Saito, 71, and his wife Terue, 68. Their aim is to bring down average radiation around this home from approximately 3 to 1.5 microsieverts per hour.
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“My youngest grandchild has never been here,” he says, because radiation levels in this hilly part of the municipality remain several times above what they were before the accident. 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 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant roughly 25 kilometers to the south, rain and snow laced with radiation fell across this area. It contaminated thousands of acres of rich farming land and forests.
More than 160,000 people nearest the plant were ordered to evacuate. The Saito’s home is a few kilometres 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 covered 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 and other radiation workers.
Readings in several towns and villages remain far above the evacuation threshold. Areas where they reach more than 50 milliseverts per year are understatedly referred to as zones where it will be “difficult to return home” – meaning that many of the 160,000 refugees won’t be able to return, a conclusion that few political leaders, if any, are willing to admit openly.
Outside the zones, thousands have stayed away voluntarily. Local authorities are spending hundreds of millions of dollars on decontamination to persuade them to come back.
The price tag for cleaning a heavily mountainous and wooded area covering 2,000 square kilometres – more than one-third the size of Prince Edward Island - 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 US. The government has set aside $2.9 billion for decontamination in fiscal 2013, and requested another $3.26 billion for next year.
Mr Saito’s home falls within the boundaries of Minamisoma, a city that has never recovered from the disaster.
Most of its 71,000 population fled voluntarily from the Daiichi accident 20 km south. A third have yet to return, spooked by lingering radiation and the fear of another calamity at the still unstable facility.
“We’ve worked hard to make our city livable again,” says mayor Katsunobu Sakurai. “But everything we’ve done could be for nothing unless the problems at the plant are fixed.”
Fighting radiation is now one of Minamisoma’s few growth industries. The city has set up a permanent office to coordinate decontamination, with a budget this year alone of $230 million.
Since last September, a crew of 650 men has laboured around the local streets and countryside, cleaning schools, homes and farms. By the end of the year, the operation will employ nearly 1,000 people – a large chunk of the town’s remaining able-bodied workforce.
Local governments are desperate for evacuees to return and must decide on what basis, in terms of exposure to radiation, evacuation orders will be lifted.
Despite the investment of money and manpower, the results of the cleanup effort are questionable.
Radiation levels in most areas of Fukushima have dropped by around 40 per cent since the disaster began, according to 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 Nobuyoshi Ito, a farmer who opted to stay behind in the heavily contaminated village of Iitate, about 40 km from the plant. “In effect, this shields the radiation from the ground. I asked the mayor, why don’t you protest to the central government? But the municipality isn’t doing anything to fix this situation.”
The disagreement over actual radiation levels is far from academic. Local governments are desperate for evacuees to return and must decide on what basis, in terms of exposure to radiation, evacuation orders will be lifted.
But if they unilaterally declare their areas safe, evacuees could be forced to choose between returning home and losing vital monthly compensation from Tokyo Electric Power Co. (Tepco), operator of the Daiichi complex.
Radiation dosage rates
The International Commission on Radiological Protection has the following guidelines for exposure to radiation.
- Recommended limit for public exposure: 1 millisievert per year (mSv/yr), or 0.114 microsieverts per hour (μSv/h) assuming constant exposure.
- Iitate mayor's target for decontamination: 5 mSv/yr or 0.570 μSv/h.
- Japanese government standard for ordering evacuation: 20 mSv/yr or 2.283 μSv/h.
- Limit for nuclear workers in Japan: 50 mSv/yr or 5.707 μSv/h
For the refugees, one worrying precedent has been set in the municipality of Date, which lies outside the most contaminated areas. In December 2012, the local government lifted a “special evacuation” order imposed on 129 households because of a hotspot, arguing that radiation doses had fallen below 20 millisieverts per year (mSv/yr). Three months later the residents lost the $1,000 a month they were receiving from Tepco for “psychological stress.”
Still, local leaders say they believe the decontamination will work.
“Field tests have demonstrated we can bring levels down to 5 millisieverts per year, and that is our objective,” says Norio Kanno, mayor of Iitate.
He accepts that some residents might refuse to return until exposure falls further – the limit recommended by the International Commission on Radiological Protection is 1 mSv/yr. But he insists nobody will be excluded from any relocation plan.
"It's all a question of balance, of where to put our priorities,” he says. “In the end, we need to reach a consensus as a community.”
The Fukushima cleanup, however, faces another problem: securing sites to store contaminated soil, leaves and sludge.
Local governments throughout Japan have refused to accept the toxic waste, meaning it will probably stay in Fukushima for good.
Many landowners balk at hosting “interim” dumps where contaminated material can be held – in principle for three years – until the central government builds a mid-term storage facility. The waste is stored under blue tarpaulins across much of the prefecture, sometimes close to schools and homes.
At Mr. Saito’s home, the decontamination crew has finished a 10-day shift, power-hosing his roof, digging drains and removing 5 centimetres of topsoil from his land. The cleanup has cut radiation by about half, to about 1.5 microsieverts, but in the contaminated trees a few metres behind his house the reading is still 2.1 microsieverts. The trees are on a different property, meaning they cannot be cut down without the approval of the owner.
“Unless you do something about those trees, all your work is useless,” he berates an official from the city.
Sometime, perhaps, the crew will have to return, he speculates.
“Whatever happens, we will never have the kind of life we had before. It’s clear that my grandchildren will never come here again.”