Naraha may be the first town in the exclusion zone to be repopulated. Almost all the damage has been repaired, but radiation meters are everywhere.
Azuma Hashimoto, 72, returning to his home in Nahara, February 2015. photo: reuters
Every morning, a group of municipal employees gathers at Naraha City Hall for a meeting. Then they go out in pairs to look for new returnees in the residential neighborhoods. They want to register them and ask what they need. This time Kumiko Watanabe and her helper meet an old man in his garden. "How are you?" asks Watanabe in a warm voice. At first, he replies, "Everything’s fine." But when the 87-year-old tells her that he has returned without his son, he bursts into tears. Watanabe tries to comfort the crying old man. "Everyone will be back soon!" she promises.
But that is only a hope so far. Almost all quake and tsunami damage in the small town has been repaired, the railroad line and roads repaired, and the soil and houses decontaminated. Six months ago, the government decided to allow Naraha to be repopulated, the first of seven towns that were completely evacuated in March 2011. Life there was officially declared safe, against all doubts. On September 5, the evacuation order was lifted. Six months later, only 440 of the 7,400 ex-residents have returned, two-thirds of them seniors over 60. The city welcomes each returnee more or less individually.
In Reiko Oshikane’s case, the longing for the old life was so great that she quit a good job to return. The tsunami had flooded her house a kilometer and a half from the sea, but she and her husband have since repaired it. The 58-year-old suppresses her fear of radiation. "I shouldn’t really go to the mountains behind Naraha because of the high radioactivity," she says. "Then I tell myself it will be okay, I only have thirty years to live anyway." Her calculation sounds cynical, yet it is rational. In the town hall, at the seaside hotel, along the road – in Naraha, radiation meters are everywhere. Their red digital digits show values of 0.1 to 0.2 micro-sieverts per hour. That’s significantly higher than before the accident, but annualized, it’s only twice the internationally recommended dose.
But Naraha’s only returning doctor, Kaoru Aoki, believes the concerns of former residents are justified. "We Japanese were always told that nuclear power was safe, but then there was this terrible disaster," he says. As a result, he says, the majority can no longer believe the authorities. The state should better protect the citizens, the doctor demands. The dangerous strontium 90 should be filtered out of the drinking water, the non-decontaminated areas should be closed and warning signs should be put up there.
Everyone carries a dosimeter
It would be easy to forget the danger, since radioactive radiation cannot be seen, smelled or tasted. But every resident always carries a dosimeter. And there are still thousands of black bags of decontamination waste in numerous areas around Naraha. "If you want the residents to come back, you have to remove all the waste," Aoki says.
Even that might not be enough to lure back younger people and families. There is also a lack of jobs, recreational opportunities, kindergartens and schools. Mayor Yukiei Matsumoto is under no illusions: "The reconstruction of Naraha is not starting from zero, but from minus." For example, in agriculture. Fukushima used to be known for rice and peaches, but today the regional designation of origin is a stigma. The mayor proudly points to wall photos of him and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. "Our head of government ate rice and salmon from Naraha in front of the press to improve the reputation of our products," he says.
Matsumoto has had the retirement home renovated. It opened with a dozen returnees as residents. A hospital followed in February, and a hotel was expanded. The elementary school will be ready in spring 2017. But an operator is lacking for the planned strip mall with a superstore and hardware store.
"We have a chicken-and-egg problem," says Kaoru Saito, secretary general of the local chamber of commerce. "Without business no returnees, without returnees no business!" He calls for guaranteed, interest-free loans against the risk of insolvency. The number of employees at the Naraha industrial park has dropped from 800 in the past to 10 now. Saito tries an appeal: "Families shouldn’t think about radiation, money and infrastructure, but how they want to continue living as a family." He expects more than a third of the people to return in the next five years.
Mayor Matsumoto is attentive to the wishes of those who want to return. After complaints about the deep darkness, the city installed 1,000 extra-bright LED lights. "We want the evacuees to realize what a good place Naraha is to live," Matsumoto says.
On the drip of the nuclear industry
The politician can’t resolve one dilemma: The city once lived off the nuclear industry – and is now back on its drip. Before the accident, 60 percent of the city’s budget was financed by payments from the power company Tepco and government grants for the acceptance of the nuclear plants. The majority of residents worked directly or indirectly for Tepco’s two power plants with ten reactors. In the accident, Naraha’s proximity to the nuclear power plants was its undoing. But now more than half of the income continues to come from Tepco. New jobs are created mainly by decommissioning the reactors. The NPP is a huge construction site with 7,000 workers a day.
Kentaro Aoki also sees opportunities here. The 26-year-old works for a cooperative that breeds salmon at the new port of Naraha. Previously, Aoki helped clean up the destroyed nuclear plant for three years. "If Tepco called me again today, I don’t think I would say no," he says blithely. The work is a "bit dangerous" and his parents are against it, but it pays well. Like almost all returnees from Naraha, he hesitates to criticize nuclear power. The repaired reactors on the coast can still be used, he says.
Two thirds of the few returnees to Naraha are already senior citizens.
Mayor Matsumoto does not want to pillory the operator Tepco: "There has been a lack of sensitivity to safety," he replies when asked. But that’s a matter of the past for him, he says: "After five years, I want to focus on the future and make progress." In the rebuilding of Naraha, the Japanese tendency to ignore bad by looking away is evident. This eases the burden on the soul and makes everyday life easier. However, one also avoids learning from mistakes and finding new ways.