Japan cleans up radiation zone, unsure of success

Massive effort under way to clean or remove contaminated material

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FUKUSHIMA, JAPAN Workers in rubber boots chip at the frozen ground, scraping until they’ve removed the top 2 inches of radioactive soil from the yard of a single home.

Total amount of waste gathered: roughly 60 tons.

One down, tens of thousands to go.

And since wind and rain spread radiation easily, even this yard may need to be dug up again.

The work is part of a monumental task: a costly and uncertain effort by Japan to try to make radiation-contaminated communities inhabitable again.

Some contractors are experimenting with chemicals; others stick with shovels and high-pressure water. One government expert says it’s mostly trial and error.

The radiation leak has slowed considerably at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant, nearly one year after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami sent three of its reactors into meltdown.

Work continues toward a permanent shutdown, but the Japanese government declared the plant stable in December, setting the stage for the next phase: decontaminating the area so at least some of the 100,000 evacuated residents can return.

Specialists leading the government-funded project cannot guarantee success. They say there’s no prior model for what they’re trying to do.

Even if they succeed, they’re creating another problem they don’t yet know how to solve: where to dump all the radioactive soil and debris they haul away.

• Uncertain outcome

The government has budgeted $14 billion through March 2014 for the cleanup, which could take decades.

The uncertainty plays out at many levels. One of the workers at the house with the frozen ground said they weren’t sure how to measure 2 inches from the uneven ground or what to do with the snow on top of it.

“We often encounter situations that are not in the manual and wonder if we are doing the right thing,” Takahiro Watanabe said as they wrapped up on a chilly February day. “Just to be safe, we packed the snow into the bags.”

The 60 tons of radioactive waste sat in 60 waterproof bags, waiting to be carted away from the house in Fukushima city’s Onami district.

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