Futaba is a modern-day ghost town — not a boomtown gone bust, not even entirely a victim of the devastating earthquake and tsunami that leveled other parts of Japan’s northeast coast.
Its traditional wooden homes have begun to sag and collapse since they were abandoned in March by residents fleeing the nuclear plant on the edge of town that began spiraling toward disaster. Roofs possibly damaged by the earth’s shaking have let rain seep in, starting the rot that is eating at the houses from the inside.
The roadway arch at the entrance to the empty town almost seems a taunt. It reads: “Nuclear energy: a correct understanding brings a prosperous lifestyle.”
Those who fled Futaba are among the nearly 90,000 people evacuated from a 19km zone around the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant and another area to the northwest contaminated when a plume from the plant scattered radioactive cesium and iodine.
Now, Japan is drawing up plans for a cleanup that is both monumental and unprecedented, in the hopes that those displaced can go home.
The debate over whether to repopulate the area, if trial cleanups prove effective, has become a proxy for a larger battle over the future of Japan.
Supporters see rehabilitating the area as a chance to showcase the country’s formidable determination and superior technical know-how — proof that Japan is still a great power.
For them, the cleanup is a perfect metaphor for Japan’s rebirth.
Critics counter that the effort to clean Fukushima Prefecture could end up as perhaps the biggest of Japan’s white-elephant public works projects — and yet another example of post-disaster Japan reverting to the wasteful ways that have crippled economic growth for two decades.
So far, the government is following a pattern set since the nuclear accident — dismissing dangers, often prematurely, and laboring to minimize the scope of the catastrophe. Already, the trial cleanups have stalled: The government failed to anticipate communities’ reluctance to store the tonnes of soil to be scraped from contaminated yards and fields.
And a radiation specialist who tested the results of an extensive local cleanup in a nearby city found that exposure levels remained above international safety standards for long-term habitation.
Even a vocal supporter of repatriation suggests that the government has not yet leveled with its people about the seriousness of their predicament.
“I believe it is possible to save Fukushima,” said the supporter, Tatsuhiko Kodama, director of the Radioisotope Center at the University of Tokyo. “But many evacuated residents must accept that it won’t happen in their lifetimes.”
To judge the huge scale of what Japan is contemplating, consider that experts say residents can return home safely only after thousands of buildings are scrubbed of radioactive particles and much of the topsoil from an area the size of Connecticut is replaced.
That is not all: Even forested mountains will probably need to be decontaminated, which might necessitate clear-cutting and literally scraping them clean.
The Soviet Union did not attempt such a cleanup after the Chernobyl accident of 1986, the only nuclear disaster larger than that at Fukushima Dai-ichi. The government instead relocated about 300,000 people, abandoning vast tracts of farmland.
Many Japanese officials believe that they do not have that luxury; the evacuation zone covers about 13,500km2, more than 3 percent of the landmass of this densely populated nation.