Residents began returning to the FukushimaPrefecturetown of Naraha on Sept. 5 as evacuation orders issued after the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster were lifted, but the town’s revival is uncertain as residents fret over the scarcity of medical services and other lifelines.
To make Naraha residents’ return to their homes successful and to increase momentum for the reconstruction of additional towns, the national government is drawing up policies to provide assistance to local businesses.
In the district of Kamikobana, an area near central Naraha that is surrounded by forest, Noriko Sato, 53, smiled on Sept. 4 as she watched her 93-year-old mother-in-law tend to flowers in the garden of the family’s home, to which they returned after having evacuated to the Fukushimaprefecturalcity of Iwaki.
“She is really happy to be back,” Sato said.
Among the 18 households in the district, however, some 30 percent have built new homes in the areas where they evacuated — and though the evacuation orders have been lifted, hardly any of them plan to return anytime soon.
Sato says that she had also planned to resettle permanently outside of Naraha, but that she decided to return due to her mother-in-law’s desire to live in her hometown, which had been her residence for 70 years. Meanwhile, Sato’s 56-year-old husband has been living on his own in NiigataPrefecture, after the foodstuffs company where he works relocated there following the nuclear crisis. With their 28-year-old daughter living and working alone in the city of Iwaki, the family of four continues to live scattered apart.
In the meantime, Naraha residents are voicing their anxiety about life in the town following the lifting of the evacuation orders. For example, a high concentration of radioactive materials remains sunk at the bottom of a dammed lake within the town’s borders that serves as a local water source.
“It is only the elderly who wish to return here,” Sato noted. “In the future, the population willcontinueto decrease even further,” she added. “And if people don’t return here, places to shop and to seek medical treatment won’t be built. I really don’t know whether this town will make it or not.”
Farmer Tamio Watanabe, 68, spent time cleaning his home on Sept. 4 in preparation for moving back in together with his family, whose members span three generations. “This town is going to experience financial hardship at some point after the government has finished with its period of intensive reconstruction,” he commented worriedly. “The governmental services available here are likely going to decline as well.”
Prior to the meltdowns at the Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant operated by Tokyo Electric Power Co., the town did not receive local government tax allocations because it was receiving subsidies for hosting the Fukushima No. 2 Nuclear Power Plant. Now, the town is receiving tax allocations because its tax revenues have fallen to less than one-third of pre-disaster levels.
Anticipated population declines also mean that predictions for the future there remain uncertain.
Sachio and Hiroko Watanabe, aged 56 and 61, respectively, say that with more than four years having passed since the disaster, life as evacuees has become the new norm.
The couple tore down their home in Naraha this year in February, and bought a 38-year-old home in the city of Iwaki, where Sachio’s company had relocated. “We will be watching what happens in Naraha from afar,” Sachio commented softly, an air of sadness about him.
According to prefectural estimates, populations of the 12 municipalities where evacuation orders were issued following the nuclear accident have decreased due to factors such as people relocating their residence registries to the areas where they evacuated.
As a consequence, eight towns and villages in the Fukushima prefectural county of Futaba are considering merging in the future.
Evacuation orders for six whole towns and villages in Futaba County are still in place. Among them, large areas in the three towns of Namie, Futaba and Okuma are designated as “difficult-to-return zones” where annual cumulative radiation exposure levels exceed 50 millisieverts.
The mayor of one of the municipalities in Futaba County commented, “Everyone here realizes that at some point, we will need to begin looking at the possibility of merging.” Meanwhile, a top prefectural official noted, “While we do not have the capacity to undertake such a merger at present, this will eventually be a discussion that we can no longer avoid.”
As evacuation orders were lifted in Naraha, the city of Minamisoma and the town of Kawamata, along with the village of Katsurao, began a program of provisional overnight stays on Aug. 31.
In Minamisoma, however, only 32 percent of residential neighborhoods and other areas where residents visit throughout the course of their daily activities had been decontaminated as of Aug. 7 although the municipal government is aiming to have evacuation orders for the city lifted by April next year.
“Decontamination is ongoing, and there is almost no one around,” commented Toshiyuki Kuroki, 66, a former agricultural cooperative employee who returned with his wife to their home in Minamisoma’s Odaka district.
“We are not yet receiving postal mail delivery, and life here is inconvenient, he added. “But at the place the authorities had rented (as a temporary housing unit for us), we could not work in the garden — and in fact, there was nothing to do at all. Here, at least things are better than they were there.”