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On Location Video: The dirty work of cleaning up Fukushima

Japan’s multibillion-dollar radiological cleanup is marred by employment law violations, shoddy working practices and a shortage of people willing to work.

TAMURA, FUKUSHIMA, Japan — One bamboo branch and spade of soil at a time, workers are slowly purging Fukushima of its nuclear legacy.

On a chilly, overcast afternoon in Tamura, which lies along the 20-kilometer (12 mile) evacuation zone around the stricken Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, crews continue the painstaking task of decontaminating neighborhoods irradiated by the March 2011 triple meltdown.

Some tear down bamboo groves near homes belonging to evacuated families. Others drill into layers of winter-hardened earth, and shovel it into black hazardous waste sacks.

When radiation levels fall to their target level, they will add a new layer of clean topsoil sourced from elsewhere.

But two years after the earthquake and tsunami, which killed around 19,000 people along Japan’s northeast coast and sparked the world’s worst nuclear crisis in a quarter of a century, the multibillion-dollar decontamination drive, involving thousands of workers, is making slow progress.

The biggest radiological cleanup the world has ever seen has been hampered by violations of employment laws, shoddy working practices and a shortage of people willing to work in an irradiated environment. The failure, so far, to secure permanent storage sites for contaminated waste has added to the authorities’ woes.

Radiation levels vary around evacuated towns and villages earmarked for decontamination. At this spot in the Miyakoji district of Tamura, the reading at ground level is more than three times the target set by the government, but much lower than the dose above which people are believed prone to damage to their long-term health through thyroid cancer, leukemia and other cancers.

Environmental hazards aside, the thousands of casual laborers who have answered the cleanup call must perform grueling work: clearing grass, leaves and branches, drilling concrete, shoveling soil and hosing down the walls and roofs of homes abandoned in the immediate aftermath of the disaster.

Just months after it began, the decontamination drive is the subject of widespread malpractice allegations. Contractors have been accused of withholding additional dangerous work payments, and of sending workers into radiation zones with minimal training and only basic equipment.

A grim pursuit

The cleanup covers only part of the area irradiated by Fukushima Daiichi’s nuclear fallout. Neighborhoods where the readings exceed 50 millisieverts a year are regarded as too contaminated to consider an early return for residents; people from villages closest to the nuclear plant may have to wait decades before they can go back. Some accept that they never will.

Fukushima’s topography has only complicated the task. About 70 percent of the prefecture is covered in mountainous forests, where cesium-137, which has a half-life of 30 years, and other radioactive isotopes have found their way into trees and soil. For now, they will be left as they are, a natural testament to a manmade disaster.

Instead, the focus of the cleanup is on 90,000 homes and dozens of schools in 11 towns and villages where some or all of the residents were forced to flee.

The radiation at ground level at the Miyakoji site visited by GlobalPost is around is 0.7 microsieverts an hour. By the time their work is done, the crew hopes to have brought that down to the government-set target of 0.23 microsieverts an hour at ground level.

“The worst part about this job is that the radiation levels just won’t go down,” said Shigeru Watanabe, a decontamination worker. “Sometimes we have to dig 5 cm [2 inches], sometimes 10 cm. We have to get the readings down to 0.23 microsieverts per hour … but achieving that will be really tough.

“All of the residents around here are having a hard time. They’ve been evacuated and are living in temporary housing, so I thought I should do as much as I can to help things get back to normal as quickly as possible.”

“There are no children around here because everyone was evacuated. It would be great to see them return soon.”

Another worker, Yuji Mizuno, was transferred to this site, located about 15.5 miles from the Fukushima Daiichi plant, by his company just over a month ago. “As long as I am in the 20 km-30 km range [from the nuclear power plant], I’m not at all worried about my health,” he said.

All of the workers in Miyakoji we spoke to said they had been properly trained and