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Nuclear waste’s enduring toll: Navigating “the Clear” in Fukushima
As Japan mobilized the world’s largest “decontamination” effort in history in the spill of the meltdowns at Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station, residents of frontline communities in Fukushima struggled with the human toll of radiation and uncertainty. The state scraped more than 16 million tons of radioactive soil from the surface of countless square kilometres in and around the Exclusion Zone, denuding forest and agricultural land and scarring communities—along with colossal piles of radioactive waste, which continue to loom over the Zone to this day. This paper explores the registers of attunement (or gradual insensitivity) to exposure in miasmatic precincts and the ways that locals grope their way through environmental risk. In irradiated Fukushima, attempts to rationalize, formalize, and sanitize operations to clear radioactive debris coexisted awkwardly with residents’ and workers’ sharp concerns over health ramifications. Toxic exposure also became fraught with ambivalence due to the extent that participants or relatives profited from work during “The Clear.” Ethnographic fieldwork in such vulnerable communities—for example those plagued by severe environmental defilement—requires sensitive and efficacious field methodology. This analysis draws on the author’s years of work in Japan on toxic waste controversies, whaling milieux, and the country’s problematic nuclear apparatus.