Japan is still cleaning up one of the world’s worst nuclear disasters. Here’s how far it has come—and how far it has yet to go.
A 50-foot wall of water spawned by the quake exploded over Daiichi’s seawall, swamping backup diesel generators. Four of six nuclear reactors on-site experienced a total blackout. In the days that followed, three of them melted down, spewing enormous amounts of radiation into the air and sea in what became the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl in 1986.
The Japanese government never considered abandoning Fukushima as the Soviet Union did with Chernobyl. It made the unprecedented decision to clean up the contaminated areas—in the process, generating a projected 22 million cubic meters of low-level radioactive waste—and return some 80,000 nuclear refugees to their homes. This past September, the first of 11 towns in Fukushima’s mandatory evacuation zone reopened after extensive decontamination, but fewer than 2 percent of evacuees returned that month. More will follow, but surveys indicate that the majority don’t want to go back. Some evacuees are afraid of radiation; many have simply moved on with their lives.
Another town scheduled to reopen, sometime in the next two years, is Tomioka, 6 miles south of the nuclear plant. One night this past fall I drove around Tomioka’s waterfront, which the tsunami had completely wiped out. It was eerily quiet, save for a loud, metallic clap echoing through the empty streets from the direction of an incineration facility. Wild boar scampered through fields where the old train station once stood. And a breeze carried the scent of mold and rot from shops and homes that had been cracked open by the earthquake and gutted by the tsunami. In one shop, a truck had been carried through a display window and deposited on the floor as if it had been deliberately parked there.
During the day, Tomioka, which once had 16,000 residents, is a vast construction site sprawling for miles across residential neighborhoods, commercial districts, and fallow rice fields. Thousands of decontamination workers equipped with little more than shovels strip 2 inches of contaminated topsoil in a 65-foot perimeter around every structure in town. They dump the soil into black decontamination bags, which they pile onto every street corner and empty lot. Some bags have been there so long, they’ve sprouted weeds. The workers also use dry hand towels to wipe down every single building, from the roof to the foundation, and pressure-wash any asphalt and concrete. It’s tedious, exhausting work.
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