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.
“We are different from Chernobyl,” said Toshitsuna Watanabe, 64, the mayor of Okuma, one of the towns that was evacuated. “We are determined to go back. Japan has the will and the technology to do this.”
Such resolve reflects, in part, a deep attachment to home for rural Japanese like Watanabe, whose family has lived in Okuma for 19 generations. Their heartfelt appeals to go back have won wide sympathy across Japan, making it hard for people to oppose their wishes in public.
However, quiet resistance has begun to grow, both among those who were displaced and those who fear the country will need to sacrifice too much without guarantees that a multibillion-dollar cleanup will provide enough protection.
Soothing pronouncements by local governments and academics about the eventual ability to live safely near the ruined plant can seem to be based on little more than hope.
No one knows how much exposure to low doses of radiation causes a significant risk of premature death. That means Japanese living in contaminated areas are likely to become the subjects of future studies — the second time in seven decades that Japanese have become a test case for the effects of radiation exposure, after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The national government has declared itself responsible for cleaning up only the towns in the evacuation zone; local governments have already begun cleaning cities and towns outside that area.
Inside the 19km ring, which includes Futaba, the environmental ministry has pledged to reduce radiation levels by half within two years — a relatively easy goal because short-lived isotopes will deteriorate.
The bigger question is how long it will take to reach the ultimate goal of bringing levels down to about 1 millisievert per year, the annual limit for the general public from artificial sources of radiation that is recommended by the International Commission on Radiological Protection. That is a much more daunting task given that it will require removing cesium 137, an isotope that has a half-life of 30 years, meaning it will remain radioactive for decades.
Trial cleanups have been delayed for months by the search for a storage site for as much as 35.5 million cubic meters of contaminated dirt, enough to fill 33 domed football stadiums. Even evacuated communities have refused to accept it.
And Tomoya Yamauchi, the radiation expert from Kobe University who performed tests in Fukushima City after extensive remediation efforts, found that radiation levels inside homes had dropped by only about 25 percent. That left parts of the city with levels of radiation four times higher than the recommended maximum exposure.
“We can only conclude that these efforts have so far been a failure,” he said.
Minamisoma, a small city whose center sits about 25km from the nuclear power plant, is a good place to get a sense of the likely limitations of decontamination efforts.
The city has cleaned dozens of schools, parks and sports facilities in hopes of enticing back the 30,000 of its 70,000 residents who have yet to return since the accident.
So far, city officials say, only a few hundred have come back.
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.”