Continued from page 1

“They abandoned the land,” Environment Minister Goshi Hosono told a meeting of local officials and residents last month. “We won’t give up. The land belongs to each village, to each resident. As long as there are people who want to return home, we’ll do everything we can to help.”

In an interview with a group of reporters, though, he conceded that such a massive cleanup is “untested.”

In Hirono, a quiet seaside town just outside the 20-kilometer ring, 70-year-old Shuzo Okada hired workers to decontaminate his house but is not willing to live there yet.

Most of the 5,500 residents have left because of radiation fears. The town office reopened recently, but Okada says the dosimeter readings he takes at his house are too high for comfort.

“I’ve had the whole house cleaned already, but it’s not enough,” he said. “We have to do it again and again. I hope we can come back some time. I’m an old man, so I’m not afraid of radiation. But I doubt younger people would want to come back.”

Experts say it may be possible to clean up less-contaminated areas, but nothing is promising in the most contaminated places, where any improvement is quickly wiped out by radiation falling from trees, mountains and other untreated areas.

Most of the cleaning is taking place in less contaminated areas, but the government also launched pilot projects in 12 districts around the plant, most of them highly contaminated, in December. Major construction companies and others won government contracts to experiment with various methods to remove and compact the overwhelming volume of waste. Those found effective will be chosen for further cleanup starting in April.

The dozens of methods range from the relatively basic — soil removal and washing and scrubbing surfaces — to the more experimental, such as using chemicals to remove radioactive cesium from farmland, and dry ice to get it out of roads and other hard surfaces. Konoike Construction Co. has tested equipment that compresses soil into round waffle-like discs after absorbing moisture.

“It’s largely trial and error,” said Kazuaki Iijima, a radiation expert at the Japan Atomic Energy Agency, which is supervising the pilot projects. “Decontamination means we are only moving contaminant from one place to another. We can at least keep it away from the people and their living space, but we can never get rid of it completely.”

Then there’s the question of finding places willing to accept an ever-growing pile of radioactive waste.

The Environment Ministry expects the cleanup to generate at least 100 million cubic meters (130 million cubic yards) of soil, enough to fill 80 domed baseball stadiums.

For now the waste is being bagged and buried in lined pits. Officials hope to build safer storage facilities somewhere inside the 20-kilometer (12-mile) zone within three years. The government launched the cleanup without definitive plans for the storage facilities; it plans to start discussing their location with local leaders later this month.

The waste would remain in the longer-term storage for 30 years, until half the radioactive cesium breaks down. Then it would still have to be treated and compacted — using technology that hasn’t been fully developed yet — before being buried deep underground in enclosed containers.

With all the uncertainties swirling around the cleanup, many evacuees are torn between a desire to go back and worries about their health.

Masato Yamazaki, a 68-year-old retired electrician, misses the vegetable garden at his house in Namie, a highly contaminated town just northwest of the plant.

Story Continues →