Tatsuhiko Kodama's voice shakes as he addresses volunteers at Ishigami Daini Kindergarten in the city of Minamisoma, 15 miles from the troubled Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant.
The director of the University of Tokyo's Radioisotope Center is training people how to decontaminate a school filled with radiation spewed from the nuclear reactors. He has explained the process a dozen times before, yet tears well up every time Kodama sees mothers donning masks, fathers taking notes with dosimeters in hand.
"All of this is to protect your health," he tells them. "We want to make sure there's no negative impact on you or your health. We must protect our children."
Kodama is leading a joint project with the local government to decontaminate neighborhoods just outside the government-mandated exclusion zone. His volunteers are carrying out an ambitious undertaking to lower radiation levels at all nurseries and schools, so children, the most vulnerable residents, can return this fall.
The plan calls for aerial monitoring devices to determine radiation levels on the ground, mapping the contamination, and training volunteers to decontaminate the areas accordingly. It's a painstaking process that requires hours of pressure washing walls and playground equipment, and shoveling highly radiated soil from school grounds. Workers scrub down the roof with brooms, take radiation measurements at every step, then repeat the process until the number on the radiation counter falls below 0.1 microsievert per hour, the level of exposure considered safe for children.
That doesn't come easily.
"The area itself is relatively highly contaminated," Kodama says. "Many small children playing around the ground might touch some mud or in some case, eat some sand, which would result in internal radiation. [That's why] we would like to remove this highly contaminated material first."
Volunteers Scrubbing Nuke Effects From Playgrounds, Schools
For the 67,000 residents of Minamisoma, it is a critical step toward returning life back to normal. Five months after Japan's worst nuclear crisis, the coastal city once considered a "ghost town" has slowly sprung back, as stores reopen and residents return home after months in temporary shelters. Yet half the population remains evacuated. A third of the city still sits inside the 12-mile, government-mandated exclusion zone, deemed too dangerous for people to live in.
The government has announced plans to lift evacuation advisories for areas outside that zone. But it has yet to come up with a blueprint to decontaminate areas where radiation exposure exceeds 20 millisieverts a year, the maximum dosage allowed for average nuclear workers.
Tired of waiting, Minamisoma has drawn up a multimillion-dollar plan that largely relies on volunteers such as Yukari Kowata to cleanup, with the help of Kodama's team. Her home is 10 miles from the Fukushima plant. She and her elderly parents have been living in temporary housing since the government forced them to evacuate in March.
On a recent Saturday, Kowata braved the rain with three dozen other volunteers, wearing parkas, gloves and face masks as they measured for radiation. Under the playground slide, the counter read "4.7 microsieverts" per hour, 40 times the level considered safe for children.