On March 11, 2011, Japan was crippled by a catastrophic 9.0 earthquake, tsunami and subsequent nuclear meltdown as three reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant facility suffered destroyed cooling systems. Anyone living within a 12-mile radius of the stricken atomic plant was forced to evacuate.
A year later, the nearly 80,000 displaced residents in this “no-entry zone” are still prohibited from returning to their homes while the Japanese government carries out an unprecedented effort to decontaminate their properties.
Unlike the Chernobyl meltdown 26 years ago, the Japanese are determined not to leave their land to waste, and are expected to spend over a trillion yuan ($12 billion) to make it habitable again. Since January, workers covered in protective jumpsuits, gas masks, gloves and booties have been engaged in intensive cleanup to decontaminate at least 247,000 acres of land, removing leaf litter from forests and scraping radioactive soil off fields. Japan’s Ministry of Environment anticipates these processes will generate massive piles of radioactive waste, which Environment Minister Goshi Hosono has said they plan to store in short-term repositories until the government constructs bigger facilities that will allow for storage over a 30-year period.
In light of the current humanitarian and health crisis, the environmental damage to the Fukushima Prefecture’s hillsides, streams and farmlands as a result of the decontamination has taken a backseat. “Decontamination can be really effective, [but] what you have is a tradeoff between dose reduction and environmental impact,” Kathryn Higley, a radioecologist at Oregon State University, told The Guardian.