On a recent morning, a small army of bulldozers and dump trucks was resurfacing a high school’s soccer field and baseball diamond with a layer of reddish brown dirt. Workers buried the old topsoil in a deep hole in a corner of the soccer field because they had nowhere else to put it.
The crew’s overseer, Masahiro Sakura, said readings at the field had dropped substantially, but he remains anxious because many parts of the city were not expected to be decontaminated for at least two years.
These days, he lets his three young daughters outdoors only to go to school and play in a resurfaced park.
“Is it realistic to live like this?” he asked.
Tokio Hayama, a city official in charge of the cleanup, acknowledged such concerns.
“No one has ever cleaned an entire city of radiation before,” he said. “It will probably take 100 years.”
The challenges are sure to be more intense inside the 19km zone, where radiation levels in some places have reached nearly 510 millisieverts a year, 25 times above the cutoff for evacuation.
Already, the proposed repatriation has opened rifts among those who have been displaced. The 11,500 displaced residents of Okuma — many of whom now live in rows of prefabricated homes 100km inland — are enduring just such a divide.
Watanabe has directed the town to draw up its own plan to return to its original location within three to five years by building a new town on farmland in Okuma’s less contaminated western edge.
Although Watanabe won a recent election, his challenger found significant support among residents with small children who were attracted to his plan to relocate to a different part of Japan.
Mitsue Ikeda, one supporter, said she would never go home, especially after a medical exam showed that her eight-year-old son, Yuma, had ingested cesium, making her fearful for his future health.
“It’s too dangerous,” Ikeda, 47, said. “How are we supposed to live? By wearing face masks all the time?”
She, like many other evacuees, berated the government, saying it was fixated on cleaning up to avoid paying compensation that would allow evacuees to move away.
Many older residents, by contrast, said they should be allowed to return, even if at their own risk.
“Smoking cigarettes is more dangerous than radiation,” said Eiichi Tsukamoto, 70, who worked at the Dai-ichi plant for 40 years as a repairman. “We can make Okuma a model to the world of how to restore a community after a nuclear accident.”
However, even Kodama, who supports a government cleanup, said such a victory would be hollow and short-lived if young people did not return.
He suggested that the government start rebuilding communities by rebuilding trust eroded over months of official evasion.
“Saving Fukushima requires not just money and effort, but also faith,” Kodama said. “There is no point if only older people go back.”