The meltdown last March of three nuclear reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan also contaminated large areas of farmland and forests. Beginning this month, at least 1,000 square kilometers of land — much of it forest and farms — will be cleaned up as workers power-spray buildings, scrape soil off fields, and remove fallen leaves and undergrowth from woods near houses.
“Safe? What is safe?” Sumiko Toyoguchi, an elderly evacuee who used to live six kilometers from the nuclear plant and now lives in temporary housing in Fukushima City, asked last month. She said she doesn’t want to return to her former home even after decontamination takes place, in part because she worries the work won’t be done adequately.
The Ministry of Environment estimates that Fukushima will have to dispose of 15 to 31 million cubic meters of contaminated soil and debris by the time the decontamination projects end. Costs are predicted to exceed a trillion yen.
As for forests, the focus for the time being is on decontaminating only patches close to homes because most people spend little time in remote woods. But because the most heavily contaminated parts of Fukushima are, like the village in Kawamata, a hilly mosaic of houses, woods, and fields, the government can’t leave nature entirely untouched.
hinichi Nakayama, a nuclear engineer at the Japan Atomic Energy Agency who is overseeing the 19 decontamination pilot projects planned or underway. “You take away the deeper layers and they fall more. But you take it all away and the ecosystem is destroyed. Water retention goes down and flooding can occur.”