A few signs of life are returning to this rural town made desolate by the Fukushima nuclear disaster four-and-a-half years ago: Carpenters bang on houses, an occasional delivery truck drives by and a noodle shop has opened to serve employees who have returned to Naraha’s small town hall.
But weeds cover the now rusty train tracks, there are no sounds of children and wild boars still roam around at night. On the outskirts of town, thousands of black industrial storage bags containing radiation-contaminated soil and debris stretch out across barren fields.
This past weekend, Naraha became the first of seven towns that had been entirely evacuated to reopen since the March 11, 2011, disaster, when a tsunami slammed into the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant, causing meltdowns and a massive radiation leak.
The town’s viability is far from certain, and its fate will be watched closely by authorities and neighboring towns to see if recovery is indeed possible on this once-abandoned land.
Just over a tenth of Naraha’s population of 7,400 say they plan to move back soon, and only a few hundred have actually returned, most of them senior citizens. Schools won’t reopen for another two years, and many families with children are staying away due to concerns about radiation levels, which authorities say are below the annual allowable limit. Residents are given personal dosimeters to check their own radiation levels if they want.
One thing that won’t change is the town’s dependence on the nuclear industry — only this time it will involve dismantling damaged reactors, not building and running them.
Returning residents are determined to make a go of it, but they wonder if the town will survive economically — and mourn that it will never be the same cozy place it was five years ago.
“There are more decontamination workers than townspeople. It’s like we’ve been taken over,” says carpenter Koichi Takeda, who evacuated to nearby Iwaki City and was in town to help a friend clean her house.
He has a number of clients renovating their houses in Naraha, but most of them are undecided about whether they will actually return. “It’s like keeping a vacation home here,” he said.
Tokuo Hayakawa, a 75-year-old Buddhist monk who returned with his wife, said he isn’t very optimistic about the town’s future.
“The town’s reconstruction plan seems to be mainly for people from outside,” he said. “If I were in my 20s or 30s, I wouldn’t have returned. But at my old age I don’t have time and energy to start over elsewhere.”
Other elderly residents said they feel sad about not being able to invite grandchildren anytime soon given radiation concerns for kids.
“I was so sad to hear that my daughter said she can’t bring her child here,” said Takeo Suzuki, 63, getting teary. “She grew up here and this is her home. We built this place for her to come back when she wants to.”
Some 100,000 people from about 10 municipalities around the wrecked nuclear plant still cannot go home. Many have moved to apartments or houses elsewhere, and some live in temporary housing built by the government.
The government hopes to lift all evacuation orders except for the most contaminated areas around the plant by March, 2017, offering up to 100,000 yen ($800) per household for moving back. But evacuees criticize the plan as a public relations stunt to showcase Fukushima’s recovery ahead of the Tokyo 2020 Games. Sections of two other towns reopened last year, but only half of their populations have since returned.