IITATE, FUKUSHIMA PREF. – Sweating inside their plastic protection suits, thousands of men toil in Japan’s muggy early summer in a vast effort to scrub radiation from the villages around Fukushima.
The mission is to decontaminate hundreds of square kilometers that were polluted when reactors went into meltdown after huge tsunami struck the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant in March 2011.
No stone is left unturned: Diggers scrape away the top layer of earth in fields, school courtyards and around the buildings of villages, while houses, buildings, roads and parking lots are scrubbed clean.
At least 20,000 people are involved in the cleanup, according to the Environment Ministry. The workers wear the special gloves, masks and boots required for workers in the nuclear industry.
There are currently around 2.5 million black bags filled with contaminated soil, plants and leaves piled up at the sites or in one of the nearly 800 temporary outdoor storage facilities set up across the disaster zone.
The effort comes as the central government prepares to declare sections of the evacuation zone habitable again.
That will mean evacuees can return to the homes they abandoned more than four years ago. It will also mean, say campaigners, that some people will have no choice but to go back because it will trigger the end of some compensation payments.
Government-run decontamination efforts are underway in 11 cities where Tokyo says that at present, anyone living there would be exposed to radiation levels of more than 20 millisieverts (mSv) a year.
The globally accepted norm for radiation absorption is 1 mSv per year, although the International Atomic Energy Agency and others say anything up to 20 mSv per year poses no immediate danger to human health.
The town of Naraha, which lies just 20 km from the plant, is expected to be declared safe in September.
The government intends to lift many evacuation orders by March 2017, if decontamination progresses as it hopes.
Still, the area immediately surrounding the plant remains uninhabitable, and storage sites meant to last 30 years are being built in the villages closest to the complex.
For now, only residential areas are being cleaned in the short-term, and the worst-hit parts of the countryside are being omitted, as recommended by the IAEA.
But that strategy has troubled environmentalists, who fear that could lead to re-contamination as woodlands will act as radiation reservoirs, with pollutants washed out by rain.
In a report on decontamination in Iitate, a heavily forested area northwest of the plant, the environmental group Greenpeace says these selective efforts will effectively confine returnees to a relatively small area of their old hometowns.
“The Japanese government plans, if implemented, will create an open-air prison of confinement to ‘cleaned’ houses and roads … and the vast untouched radioactive forests continue to pose a significant risk of recontamination of these ‘decontaminated’ areas to even higher levels,” declares the report, published Tuesday.
Some 39 other municipalities that were not evacuated after the meltdowns, and which have radiation levels deemed safe for humans, are also being decontaminated by local authorities.