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The Children of Fukushima Return, Six Years After the Nuclear Disaster via The New York Times

NARAHA, Japan — The children returned to Naraha this spring.

[…]

Reopening the school “is very, very meaningful,” said Sachiko Araki, the principal of the junior high school. “A town without a school is not really a town.”

The new, $18 million two-story building has shiny blond wood floors, spacious classrooms, two science labs, a library filled with new books and a large basketball gymnasium. A balcony at the back of the building overlooks the sea.

Many emotions fueled the decisions of the families who returned to Naraha. It was always a small town, with just over 8,000 people before the disaster. So far, only one in five former residents has come home.

[…]

With thousands of bags of contaminated soil piled high in fields around town and radiation meters posted in parking lots, the memory of the nuclear disaster is never distant.

At the Naraha school, which was being constructed when the disaster hit, workers destroyed a foundation that had just been laid and started over, removing mounds of dirt in an effort to decontaminate the site.

Today, radiation is regularly monitored on the school grounds as well as along routes to the building. The central government, based on recommendations from the International Commission on Radiological Protection, set a maximum exposure of 0.23 microsieverts an hour, a level at which there is no concrete scientific evidence of increased cancer risk. (Microsieverts measure the health effects of low levels of radiation.)

Still, some teachers say they are extra careful. Aya Kitahara, a fifth-grade teacher, said she and her colleagues had decided it was not safe to allow children to collect acorns or pine cones in the neighborhood for art projects, for fear that they would pick up small doses of radiation.

Nearby, a nursery school and day care center was built mostly with money from the nuclear plant operator, Tokyo Electric Power Company, in 2007 and reopened this month. Keiko Hayakawa, the principal, said she was surprised that the city had pushed to bring back children before all bags of contaminated soil had been cleared from town.

[…]

Calculations of radiation exposure are imprecise at best. They may not detect contaminated soil from rain runoff that can collect in gutters or other low-lying crevices. Risk of illness depends on many variables, including age, activities and underlying health conditions.

“I don’t want to accuse anyone of being consciously disingenuous,” said Kyle Cleveland, associate professor of sociology at Temple University in Tokyo, who has written about the psychological effects of the Fukushima disaster. But government officials “have every incentive to downplay the level of risk and to put a positive spin on it.”

Reviving the towns of Fukushima is also a priority for the central government. With the 2020 Olympics to be held in Tokyo, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe wants to deliver on his promise that the Fukushima cleanup effort is “under control.”

Read more at The Children of Fukushima Return, Six Years After the Nuclear Disaster

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