Once More Into the Breach

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Japan Ground Self Defense Force troops search for survivors for in Miyagi Prefecture, March 2011. Photo: Reuters

TOKYO – Japanese troops are being sent once again into the heart of the Fukushima radiation zone to battle contamination from the stricken nuclear power plant.

Specially trained troops will enter the 20-kilometer (12.4 miles) exclusion zone around the plant next month to decontaminate abandoned government buildings and facilities. Once safe, the facilities will serve as headquarters and staging areas for full-scale decontamination operations.

The deployment caps a momentous year for Japan’s armed forces.

More than 100,000 troops were sent to northeastern Japan to conduct search, rescue and relief operations after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami; it was the largest mobilization in the history of Japan’s Self Defense Forces.

The SDF began a major reorganization this year and this week concluded its largest-ever war games, with more than 35,000 troops from around the country (the unstated opponent, of course: China).

The The Self Defense Forces are experiencing unprecedented public acceptance. In a September poll, more than 82 percent said they approved of the troops’ response to the crisis, compared with just 6 percent approval for civil authorities.

In a speech last month, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda called the SDF “the pride of Japan” – a level of praise that not long ago would have brought censure in a country that is still officially pacifist.

About 400 troops from the Ground Self Defense Force’s Central Nuclear Biological Chemical Weapon Defense Unit will be sent to Fukushima.  They’ve been there before: Four members of the unit were injured in a hydrogen explosion at the plant on March 12.  Several helicopter pilots and crew received large doses of radiation while dumping seawater on one of the damaged reactors.

The soldiers are expected to finish their work in about a month. No word on when, or if, all the contamination will be gone.