POSTED: 4:50 p.m. HST, Mar 10, 2014
LAST UPDATED: 11:34 a.m. HST, Mar 11, 2014
HIRONO, Japan » The complex known here as J-Village was once Japan's largest soccer training facility. A statue in the building's foyer depicts three soccer players battling for a ball. The logo of the Tepco Mareeze, a women's soccer team that was disbanded in 2011, still is part of the decor. The sliding glass doors that open automatically when visitors approach are emblazoned with an image of soccer players.
But no one plays soccer here anymore. Instead, J-Village has become the command center in the effort to clean up the nuclear catastrophe that began when a magnitude-9.0 earthquake struck off the coast of Honshu, Japan, at 2:46 p.m. on March 11, 2011, sending a 45-foot wall of water over the 19-foot protective seawall at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant and triggering the worst nuclear disaster since the Chernobyl power plant in Ukraine exploded in 1986.
The resulting nightmare continues three years later. It may take decades to get it fully under control.
Today, J-Village's locker rooms serve decontamination workers, not athletes. Its meeting rooms, where coaches and trainers used to work with rising stars, are reserved now for stern men in uniforms who warn visitors about the danger of exposure to heightened radiation levels.
Almost no one comes here, except those directly involved in the cleanup, and the outsiders who do are given protective coveralls to wear and warned about the ongoing dangers of radiation, measured in the individual sensors each is given. On a bus trip organized by Tokyo Electric Power Co., the owner of the crippled nuclear plant, each mile closer to the disaster makes it clear there are many years to go in this crisis.
There are signs of normalcy in the area surrounding J-Village, which lies 12 miles outside the so-called exclusion zone, the area 50 miles from the crippled reactors that was ordered evacuated as the crisis spun out of control. Hirono, the town where J-Village is located, seems like any other Japanese town. Businesses are open, and people walk along the streets as if nothing were wrong.
But just a few minutes away, driving toward the plant, that sense of normal vanishes at the sight of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of black plastic bags covering the surrounding fields — each filled with radiation-contaminated soil that's being stripped from the rich agricultural land.
The radiation sensors put the level of exposure at 0.5 microsieverts per hour. Average natural background radiation around the world is half that, 0.27 microsieverts per hour. A microsievert is an estimation of how likely the exposure is to increase a person's risk of cancer. Exposure to 1 sievert — 1 million microsieverts — is said to increase the risk of developing cancer over a lifetime by 5.5 percent.
The only cars here seem to be official ones, and while outsiders are no longer banned from coming, it is clear they don't. Landscaping along the road is untended, and houses and businesses abandoned. Shops still display merchandise, apparently untouched since the disaster. Tables in restaurants remain set, awaiting patrons, as if nothing ever happened.
The impact of the disaster is even more apparent in the town of Naraha, a bit closer to the plant. Earthquake damage remains unrepaired. More alarming, the radiation level has climbed, to 1.6 microsieverts per hour — an invisible, odorless, tasteless threat in an area that otherwise is beautiful.
A checkpoint marks the spot beyond which no one may pass without special authorization. People working on what appear to be construction projects wear full protective suits. A check of the radiation monitor shows the level has risen again, to 2.6 microsieverts an hour.
Signs of a previous life are everywhere. A used car dealership is still stocked with modern and classic cars worth a small fortune, all left behind. A gas station looks open for business, with tires and other goods stacked outside. Plants grow from bags of soil in the lawn-and-garden section of a home improvement store. As the bus travels on, the radiation level soon reaches 5.8 microsieverts per hour.
At Okuma, one of the two towns that host the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, the full extent of the disaster becomes apparent. The earthquake damage was heavy and is untouched. Many streets are barricaded to prevent unauthorized entry.
The road to the plant is an ominous one. Alarms sound, alerting visitors that they have entered a radiation "hotspot." The reading on the monitor is 15 microsieverts per hour.
Few people have come this far since the Daiichi plant disaster, and the surroundings are surreal. Debris is everywhere. Cars, tossed around by the tsunami, sit, crushed and rusting.
But there is new construction — buildings that contain the Advanced Liquid Processing System, which the Tokyo Electric Power Co., or TEPCO, hopes to use to treat the tons of radiation-contaminated water that the company has used to keep the reactors' nuclear fuel cool since the tsunami. Nearby is the so-called H4N tank area, where the contaminated water is stored in hundreds of three-story-tall tanks. They hold nearly 400,000 tons of water, or more than 89 million gallons. TEPCO plans to double that capacity.
The radiation level stands at 36 microsieverts per hour.
A new L-shaped structure covers the building that housed Reactor No. 4. In the early days of the disaster, hydrogen gas exploded here, blowing the roof and most of the walls off.
TEPCO officials are proud of how normal the situation is at the building now. The reactor's nuclear fuel sits covered in water on the fourth floor — 122,640 rods, each just over 13 feet long. Of those, 106,480 are spent and 16,160 are new, arranged in assemblies of 80 rods each. The water keeps the rods from overheating and melting. TEPCO is in the process of removing the rods to a nearby pool. It's an operation that will take a year to complete.
TEPCO still doesn't know what it will do with the fuel rods that powered Reactors 1, 2 and 3. All three of those reactors suffered a meltdown, and the radiation remains too dangerous in those buildings for human beings to enter except for the briefest of times.
Still, TEPCO and the Japanese government remain convinced things will return to normal. TEPCO, Fukushima Prefecture and the Japan Football Association have announced plans to reopen J-Village as a soccer camp once again in time for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
Siegel is a McClatchy special correspondent.