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Saturday, Aug. 27, 2011

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Hazardous work: Workers decontaminate the roof of Yasawa Kindergarten in Minamisoma, Fukushima Prefecture, about 20 km from the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant, on Aug. 18. AP PHOTOS

Campaign looks to lure locals home

Minamisoma launches own campaign to halve radiation


MINAMISOMA, Fukushima Pref. — It is a daunting task. Contamination from the world's worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl has spread far and wide, across fields and farms, rivers and forests. Tens of thousands of residents have been forced to flee their homes.

News photo
Toxic trench: Workers prepare to line a huge trench dug to bury contaminated topsoil from the grounds of Yasawa Elementary School and Kindergarten in Minamisoma, Fukushima Prefecture, on Aug. 18.

But, shovelful by shovelful, one half-empty city on the edge of the evacuation zone is fighting to bring its future back.

Feeling forgotten and left largely to fend for themselves by the central government, officials in Minamisoma, about 20 km from the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear facility, have designated August as Decontamination Month in a campaign to woo spooked residents home.

"We decided that we could not sit by and wait until Tokyo figured out what to do," said municipal official Yoshiaki Yokota. "It's an enormous task, but we have to start somewhere."

Before the disaster, nearly 70,000 people lived in Minamisoma. But, nearly six months later and despite relatively low radiation readings in most parts of town, more than 30,000 have left, nearly one-third of them from areas outside the official evacuation zone.

Municipal officials fear that unless action is taken to demonstrate most of the town is safe for habitation, many may never return.

So, this month, the city has contracted local crews to hose down its schools, parks and community centers. The goal is to reduce by more than 50 percent the levels of radioactivity measured at public places where people gather.

The campaign has created a buzz of activity in the still-shaken town.

The work crews, clad in hazmat suits, also use bulldozers and power shovels to remove contaminated topsoil from public places, particularly school playgrounds.

The wash-off from the hosings and the mounds of contaminated topsoil are then moved to less-used areas and buried in huge trenches.

"I'm glad to see them here," Kiyomi Takahashi said as she watched a crew wash down a kindergarten adjacent to the school where her daughters are due to begin the first and sixth grade later this month. "I still have my concerns, but it's important that our city is out there showing that it is doing something."

For the time being, a large swath of Minamisoma remains completely off-limits.

That is because it is within the 20-km no-go zone set up by the central government days after the March 11 quake and tsunami sparked meltdowns and explosions at the nuclear plant. All told, nearly 21,000 people were killed or remain missing after the disaster that devastated the northeast coast, most victims of the tsunami.

Outside the no-go zone, contamination levels vary dramatically, depending on the local terrain. Most of Minamisoma is registering below government-set safety limits, meaning residents who evacuated earlier in the crisis may now return home if they so choose.

Still, most have stayed away because of health concerns.

"We want to show them that it is safe, and that we are doing everything we can to make it even safer," Yokota said. "Part of what we are doing is symbolic. It is intended to reassure our residents. It's also just to show that we will not sit idly by."

Some experts have reservations about the decontamination campaign.

Hiroaki Koide, a radiation specialist and associate professor at Kyoto University's Research Reactor Institute, said simply removing the top 5 cm of soil has been shown to reduce radiation levels by about 90 percent.

But he noted that the trees, roads and farmland near the decontaminated schools cannot be easily cleansed — and radiation from them can spread in the larger environment. In addition, babies, children and pregnant women are the most vulnerable to radiation-related illnesses, and are generally advised to avoid exposure whenever possible.

"Any exposure would pose a health risk, no matter how small," Koide said.

"There is no dose that we should call safe."

Another problem that has slowed the central government from acting to help is what to do with the irradiated soil, wash-off and debris in the long term.

"We have been trying to find storage and waste-processing plants, but so far we haven't been very successful," acknowledged Goshi Hosono, the minister in charge of the nuclear crisis response. "We are trying to persuade waste-processing plants, but there are local residents who oppose that."

He stressed that the government is not blind to the dilemma of communities such as Minamisoma, however.

"We must try to remove contamination from the residents' daily lives as quickly as possible," he said.

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