Safe at last? The first Fukushima community declared fit for humans
It is hard to imagine a more immaculate home. Yet for four and a half years, the Yamauchis’ house, along with every other home in the picturesque town in Fukushima prefecture, was deserted.
On 12 March 2011, Naraha’s residents were told to evacuate immediately. A day earlier, the north-east coast of Japan had been shaken by one of the most powerful earthquakes in history.
The quake set off a 46ft (14m) tsunami that killed almost 19,000 people and triggered a triple meltdown at Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.
Just as the Yamauchis contemplated the huge loss of life from the tsunami they were confronted with a second, unseen menace – large radiation leaks from Fukushima Daiichi, just 12 miles (19km) to the north.
“Our children told us never to come back to this place,” says Kohei, one of a small number of residents who returned to Naraha last month after it became the first contaminated community in Fukushima prefecture to be declared fit for human habitation.
The stress of moving from one temporary home to another – the Yamauchis have moved six times since the disaster – outweighs any concerns they have about radiation, the 79-year-old adds.
“We’re too old to be worried about getting cancer from radiation exposure. I expect a lot of older people will return, but not their children or grandchildren. It’s going to be difficult to raise children here.”
Officials in Naraha are confronting the reality that almost five years on from the nuclear meltdown, many of the town’s residents have simply started again elsewhere, including the thousands who now live in temporary housing or private accommodation in the nearby city of Iwaki.
When he lifted the evacuation order in early September, Naraha’s mayor, Yukiei Matsumoto, said: “The clock has just started ticking again for our town. We will accelerate efforts to achieve full recovery.”
Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe, has touted Naraha as a beacon of hope for about 70,000 other Fukushima residents who have yet to be given the all-clear to return to their homes.
Yet Naraha’s streets, mostly deserted even on a sunny Friday afternoon, suggests the town serves as more of a cautionary tale about misplaced optimism.
Only 200-300 people have returned since last month – including just two children – out of a pre-disaster population of 7,400 – according to local officials. Most of those who have decided to come home are retirees, and they are nowhere to be seen. Most of the shoppers and diners at a prefabricated arcade near the town hall are among the 1,000 construction workers brought in to repair the tattered local infrastructure.
At the top of a quake-damaged road still closed to traffic, builders are putting the finishing touches to a new junior high school, even though it is not scheduled to open until spring 2017. Even then, there is no guarantee there will be any children to teach.
Grand wooden homes stand empty, their windows framed by thick tape to deter burglars. Weeds poke through the tarmac forecourt of a dilapidated petrol station, and outside the local railway station, where trains began running in June last year, dozens of abandoned bicycles gather rust.
“It’s effectively a ghost town” said Seijun Watanabe, who commutes from Iwaki to Naraha to work at a restaurant. “You see lots of people milling around, but they’re all construction workers, not the people I used to live alongside before the disaster.”
Watanabe’s home was damaged in the earthquake, then overrun by animals during the four and a half years it has stood empty. “It’s full of animal faeces, no one can live there,” the 56-year-old said. “My wife and I plan to demolish it, rebuild on the same land and come back in five or 10 years.”
“It’s impossible to know what the future holds, but I don’t think this place will ever be the same again. Lots of residents are in their 70s and 80s – no one in their 30s and 40s, especially parents of young children, is interested in coming back. It is beautiful around here, but life is really inconvenient.”
Officials say the laborious task of removing contaminated soil from around residential areas, schools, shops and public buildings has been completed, although about 100 households have reported radiation spikes and asked for the work to be redone.
The average atmospheric radiation level in the town is 0.3 microsieverts an hour, or just less than three millisieverts (mSv) a year, according to official readings. That is slightly higher than the government-set “ambition” of one mSv a year – a target that experts have criticised as unrealistically low. Most agree that the risk of developing cancer rises by a very small amount at doses above 100 millisieverts a year.
“Our aim is for everyone to come back, but there is no strict timeline,” said Yusuke Igari, one of 80 local officials who have been preparing Naraha for the residents’ return. “Some people might wait another five or 10 years, or even longer.
“We want to be a model of recovery for other towns and villages. If we can’t get people to resume their lives here, then other communities won’t stand a chance. We feel a deep sense of responsibility about that.”
Shimpei Koizumi is one of the few people who can imagine a life for his family in Naraha. “My mother and daughter pleaded with me to fix the house because they desperately wanted to move back, but couldn’t afford to pay someone else to do it,” says the 65-year-old carpenter, who has just finished replacing roof tiles shaken to the ground by the earthquake.
But Koizumi, who is living in temporary housing in Iwaki, won’t be joining his family. “I don’t trust the authorities when they say the water is safe to drink, and there are no proper shops, just a couple of convenience stores and vending machines. And there’s no one around. I’d rather stay where I am.”
Striking evidence of Naraha’s place in Japan’s worst nuclear accident covers large swaths of the town’s outskirts. About 580,000 black bags filled with low-level nuclear waste blanket fields where farmers once grew the region’s famed rice and vegetables – produce that, even if declared safe, has become tainted by the damage radiation has inflicted on Brand Fukushima.
In places, though, there are gentle stirrings of a post-Fukushima version of civic life. Two convenience stores have reopened, along with a supermarket and a mobile bank, and the local post office will reopen soon. From next month residents will be able to discuss their health and finances at a new heath centre and credit union.
The government hopes to lift all evacuation orders except for the most contaminated areas nearest to the stricken plant by March 2017, and is offering up to 100,000 yen per household to move back.
In Naraha, as in the rest of Fukushima, opinion is divided on whom to blame for the disaster. It isn’t hard to find Tepco critics, yet others remember the huge subsidies and employment their hometown derived from its nuclear-host status. “I don’t think this is anyone’s fault,” says Watanabe.
“This place received lots of money from Tepco, and that enabled us to enjoy a certain standard of living. It meant we had more money and resources than other places that didn’t have nuclear plants nearby.”
Yamauchi, a retired farmer whose family has lived in the same house for seven generations, is reluctant to apportion blame. He is, he says, just relieved to be back among his collection of kokeshi and daruma, watched over by his ancestors.
“There’s no point getting angry or bitter about what happened,” he says. “That won’t change anything. All we want to do is look forward and get on with our lives again. We were always going to come back … this is our home.”