Can Japan's 'Recovery Olympics' heal Fukushima's nuclear scars?

FUTABA, Japan — Nine years after “Fukushima” became synonymous with nuclear disaster, the area will help kick off the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo by hosting the opening ceremony’s torch relay near its devastated power plant.

But this symbol of rebirth — part of a planned renaissance for a region ravaged by the strongest earthquake in Japan’s history and deadly tsunami that engulfed entire communities — raises questions of whether nearly a decade is enough time to recover and make the area safe.

Officials in Japan told NBC News they were hopeful that the games, which open on July 24 and have been dubbed the country’s “Recovery Olympics,” would convince skeptics that the answer is yes.

“It’s an opportunity for Japan to change people’s perception, people’s view of Fukushima,” said Naoto Hisajima, the director general of disarmament, nonproliferation and science for Japan’s Foreign Ministry. “The Olympic torch will pass through Fukushima, and there’re going to be Olympic events in Fukushima.”

For more on this story, tune in to “NBC Nightly News” with Lester Holt tonight at 6:30 p.m. ET/5:30 p.m. CT, or to “TODAY” tomorrow at 7 a.m. ET.

It will be a startling turnaround after a region hit by a 9.0 magnitude earthquake — the strongest in Japan’s history — on March 11, 2011. A tsunami soon followed, leaving more than 15,000 people dead and 2,500 others still missing.

The deadly wall of water slammed through the walls of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, knocking out the power supply, including backup generators, and flooding parts of the plant. Three nuclear reactors melted down, spewing radioactive particles into the air.

Authorities acted quickly, scrubbing buildings and removing about 4 inches of soil and vegetation from the surrounding area. That lowered radioactivity to levels that are safe for people to be in contact with, according to Dr. Claire Corkhill of the U.K.’s University of Sheffield.

Researchers at Sheffield University recreate material similar to the melted nuclear fuel found on the floor of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant’s damaged reactors.Yuka Tachibana / NBC News

Corkhill’s team is helping plant operators come up with a plan to dispose of the highly radioactive melted cores — the parts of the power plant’s nuclear reactors that contained fuel components, like uranium and plutonium, that generated the heat to produce the power.

They are so toxic that only remotely controlled robots can get to them, but the robots are unable to remove them because “the intense radiation tends to fry their circuits,” she said.

Corkhill said that it will take decades to completely shut down the plant and that the operators still don’t know how to reach the cores.

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Space to store the 1 million tons of water — equal to 400 Olympic-size swimming pools — that must be pumped through the reactor to keep the fuel cool is also running out, she warned.

While the water has been treated to remove most of the most dangerous radioactive components, traces of tritium remain.

Japanese authorities have suggested releasing the water slowly into the sea over a number of years, which Corkhill said was standard practice for power stations around the world.

It’s “the most feasible option at the moment,” she said. “I assure everybody from around the world that Fukushima is safe.”

Many residents are doubtful, however — particularly fishermen and women who test every catch for radiation.

Buddhist priest Sadamaru Okano looks at geiger counters and radiation charts with his 11-year-old son, Sadahiro, at his temple in Matsukawa Town, Fukushima, Japan.Yuka Tachibana / NBC News

Sadamaru Okano, a Buddhist monk who runs Seirinji Temple in the Fukushima town of Matsukawa, said that immediately after the accident there was a great deal of conflicting data from the Japanese government and Tokyo Electric Power Co.

People were “confused,” he said.

“It’s safe, then it’s unsafe, and we never ever knew the numbers,” he added.

Sean Bonner and Azby Brown agreed. The pair run the environmental organization Safecast, which gives Geiger counters to Fukushima residents, as well as other people across Japan, to take radiation readings. It then collates the data and publishes them live on their website, which is an open source for radiation information.

Brown described trust as a “nonrenewable resource.”

“Once you’ve lost it, you don’t get it back,” Bonner said. “So we see our system as a side effect of people desperate to find something they can trust, because they’re not trusting information from the news. They’re not trusting information from authorities or institutions.”

While the cleanup continues, some areas remain off limits. Two miles from the plant, the town of Futaba remains uninhabited. Radiation levels are so high that former residents have to seek special permission to enter the town.

Katushide Okada, 75, said he had run a rose garden in the town since he was 23.

“We left with only what we were wearing,” he said. “We haven’t been able to go home since.”

Okada, who now lives in Tsukuba, about 130 miles to the south, in Ibaragi Prefecture, added, “This is a manmade disaster.”

Radiation hotspots have been found in J-Village, the starting point of the Olympic torch relay, according to Greenpeace.

Futaba’s clock shop, left, and butcher shop in the still uninhabitable town.Yuka Tachibana / NBC News

After conducting its own tests, Greenpeace said radioactive contamination still remained in the parking lot and the nearby forests at the Olympic sports complex in Fukushima Prefecture.

Japan’s Environment Ministry said it had subsequently implemented “radiation reduction measures.”

“It was confirmed that the air dose rate on the spot decreased,” it said on its website.

Hisajima, the Foreign Ministry’s science director, also insisted that the government had been working with local authorities to manage the situation.

“I assure everybody from around the world that Fukushima is safe,” he said. “The radiation level is not different from those of other major cities. And we would like to welcome all those who will visit Fukushima on this occasion.”

Keir Simmons and Yuka Tachibana reported from Futaba, Japan, and Henry Austin from London.