” 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.”
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.
An economic revival plan centers on a giant 85 billion yen ($700 million) facility that is being built on the edge of town to research, develop and test specialized robots and other technology — part of the government’s “Innovation Coast” plan to turn the disaster-hit region into a hub for nuclear plant decommissioning technology.
The complex will include mock-ups of sections of the wrecked Fukushima reactors to train workers on robot operations. Dismantling the Dai-ichi plant and removing its melted reactor cores will take about 40 years, the government estimates.
The facility is expected to draw hundreds of workers, and the town also seeks to host laborers to decontaminate buildings and outdoor areas in the area. Naraha is also home to a second nuclear power plant — Fukushima Dai-ni — that barely survived the tsunami but may be scrapped due to local opposition to its restart. So it may also be dismantled.
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.