OKUMA, Fukushima Prefecture--Withered weeds cover the yard of Kumamachi Elementary School, while satchels, dictionaries, calligraphy tools, keyboard harmonicas and handmade bags for gym uniforms lay abandoned inside the darkened classrooms.
There are no children at the school. They haven’t been here since they fled during the aftershocks on March 11, 2011, leaving their belongings behind.
The school is 4 kilometers from the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, which straddles the towns of Okuma and Futaba.
All residents left Okuma on the day after the disaster. It is not known when they can return.
About the only consistent activity evident in Okuma now are workers in protective clothing trying to decontaminate the town.
At some locations, the radiation level measures 50 microsieverts per hour, lower than the figure soon after the accident but still more than 10 times the government standard for evacuation.
In January, the town government set up devices at 15 locations to measure radioactive substances released from the Fukushima No. 1 plant.
“Even if we remove accumulated radioactive substances, it could become meaningless if new ones fall,” a town employee told The Asahi Shimbun. “We need to know what is happening without relying on information from the government and (plant operator) Tokyo Electric Power Co.”
Decontamination work started in a 28-hectare area of rice paddies in southwestern Okuma at the end of last year because radiation levels there are relatively low.
About 200 workers in protective clothing now remove potentially contaminated soil and vegetation and stuff them in black bags that have piled up throughout the area.
Initial plans called for removing topsoil 5 cm from the surface of the rice paddies. The depth was revised to 10 cm because radiation levels did not drop sufficiently.
The government plans to complete decontamination of the area by March next year. But that area was home to only 4 percent of town residents, and it is unclear when the cleanup will be completed in all other areas of the town.
The government plans to build an intermediate storage facility for soil collected in the decontamination work around the Fukushima No. 1 plant in an area encompassing Okuma, Futaba and Naraha towns.
In one possible candidate site, many homes, separated from the Fukushima nuclear plant by low forests, could be seen from a hill in Okuma.
A 17-km section of the Joban Expressway, which runs through the coastal area of Fukushima Prefecture, remains closed due to earthquake damage.
East Nippon Expressway Co. plans to reopen the section between the Hirono Interchange and the Joban-Tomioka Interchange by March 2014.
Large-scale restoration work is required at 13 locations along the section, according to the company.
About 10 people in protective clothing were working near the Hirono Interchange when an Asahi Shimbun reporter visited the site on March 7.
Radiation levels along the section range from 3.8 microsieverts per hour to 9.5 microsieverts per hour.
The Environment Ministry is decontaminating the area to lower radiation levels to at least 3.8 microsieverts per hour before the section reopens.
(Takemichi Nishibori contributed to this article.)
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