NARAHA, Japan — In this small farming town in the evacuation zone surrounding the stricken Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, small armies of workers in surgical masks and rubber gloves are busily scraping off radioactive topsoil in a desperate attempt to fulfill the central government’s vow one day to allow most of Japan’s 83,000 evacuees to return. Yet, every time it rains, more radioactive contamination cascades down the forested hillsides along the rugged coast.
Nearby, thousands of workers and a small fleet of cranes are preparing for one of the latest efforts to avoid a deepening environmental disaster that has China and other neighbors increasingly worried: removing spent fuel rods from the damaged No. 4 reactor building and storing them in a safer place.
The government announced Tuesday that it would spend $500 million on new steps to stabilize the plant, including an even bigger project: the construction of a frozen wall to block a flood of groundwater into the contaminated buildings. The government is taking control of the cleanup from the plant’s operator, the Tokyo Electric Power Company.
The triple meltdown at Fukushima in 2011 is already considered the world’s worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl. The new efforts, as risky and technically complex as they are expensive, were developed in response to a series of accidents, miscalculations and delays that have plagued the cleanup effort, making a mockery of the authorities’ early vows to “return the site to an empty field” and leading to the release of enormous quantities of contaminated water.
As the environmental damage around the plant and in the ocean nearby continues to accumulate more than two years after the disaster, analysts are beginning to question whether the government and the plant’s operator, known as Tepco, have the expertise and ability to manage such a complex crisis.