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Asia

Five years after Fukushima - How the radiation-hit Naraha is coping

Six months ago, Naraha became the first town in the Fukushima "exclusion zone" to allow residents to return since Japan's March 2011 nuclear disaster. Martin Fritz reports about the situation on the ground.

Every morning, a group of local officials gather for a meeting in Naraha's town hall. From there, they head out in pairs looking for new returnees, in order to register their details and ask them what they need.

Accompanied this time around by a camera crew from the media outlet NHK, Kumiko Watanabe and her assistant came across an old man working in his garden. "How are you doing?" asks Watanabe in a warm voice.

Although the 87-year old initially responded by noting: "all is well," he soon burst into tears saying he had returned to Naraha without his son. Watanabe tried to comfort the weeping old man by assuring him that "everybody will return soon."

But this remains only a hope, despite the fact that the town has managed to repair all the earthquake and tsunami-related damages caused to buildings, rail and roads. The town also has succeeded in decontaminating the area. Six months ago, Naraha also became the first town in the radiation-tainted zone to allow people to return permanently.

Despite the announcement, only around 440 of the town's nearly 7,400 former residents have returned, according to official statistics. Two-thirds of these returnees are senior citizens aged over 60.

Longing for the past

The longing for the past was so great for Reiko Yoshikane that she quit a well-paid job to return. The tsunami flooded her house, which was located about one-and-a-half kilometers from the coastline. But the 58-year old and her husband have now repaired the house, and are trying to overcome their fears of radiation. "I shouldn't go to the mountains behind Naraha due to the high levels of radioactivity in the area," she said. "But then I tell myself that it will be alright, as I only have about 30 years to live anyway," she added.

Japan Naraha , Fukushima , dosimeter is set at Naraha Kita Elementary School

Dosimeters like this one can be seen everywhere across Naraha

While her thinking may sound cynical, it's also rational. Monitoring devices can be seen everywhere across Naraha, showing radiation levels of about 0.1 to 0.2 micro sievert per hour. While this is significantly higher than the levels before the nuclear catastrophe, on an annual rate, it is only twice as high as the internationally recommended levels.

But Kaoru Aoki, the only doctor among the returnees so far, believes the concerns raised by the town's former inhabitants are justified. "The Japanese people have always been told that nuclear power is safe, but then there was this terrible disaster," he noted, adding this has led many to doubt what the authorities say.

The doctor called on the Japanese government to do more to protect the people, pointing out that the dangerous strontium 90 should be filtered out of the water, and that the non-decontaminated sites have to be cordoned off.

While one could easily forget the health risk posed by nuclear radiation as it cannot be seen, every resident in the town seems to always carry a dosimeter. And there are still thousands of black waste decontamination bags lined up at numerous areas around Naraha. "The waste must be transported away to some other place if the town wants the residents to return," said Aoki.

Inadequate infrastructure

But even that won't be enough to entice young people and families to return. There is a lack of jobs, leisure-time activities, kindergartens and schools. Yukiei Matsumoto, Naraha's mayor, doesn't harbor any illusions.

To explain the scope of the challenges ahead, he says that, in numerical terms, Naraha's reconstruction is not starting from zero, but from a negative position. Matsumoto argues, for instance, that while Fukushima was once known for its rice and peaches, this regional designation of origin has now been stigmatized.

Pointing to a picture hanging on a wall showing Japanese PM Shinzo Abe and himself, the mayor said: "Our head of government ate rice and salmon from Naraha in front of reporters in a bid to help boost our products' reputation."

Matsumoto had the retirement home refurbished, and a dozen residents took part in the opening ceremony. A hospital followed in February, and a hotel featuring bathing ponds was expanded. The primary school is set to be completed by the spring of 2017. But there is still no operator for the proposed shopping street which is set to feature a supermarket and a hardware store.

"We have a chicken-and-egg problem," said Kaoru Saito, secretary general of the local chamber of commerce. "There will be no returnees without businesses, and no businesses without returnees." This is why Saito is calling for non-interest bearing loans to secure against the risk of insolvency.

The number of people working in the Naraha industrial park has dropped from 800 to 10, with only three of them coming from the town. Saito has therefore appealed to the affected families to not think about radiation, money or infrastructure, but rather about how they want to continue living as families." He reckons that more than a third of them will return within the next five years.

In the meantime, Matsumoto reacts attentively to the wishes of the returnees. After receiving complaints about how dark the town was, the mayor had a thousand LED lamps and 24 surveillance cameras installed. "Those residents who had to leave should now notice that Naraha is a good place to live in," he said.

Nuclear energy as a lifeline

But there is a dilemma the politician cannot solve: The town, which once owed its existence to the nuclear industry, has again become dependent on it. Epitomizing this dilemma is the new 87.7 million USD research center set up by the Japan Atomic Energy Agency (JAEA), where new technologies for decommissioning the crippled Fukushima reactors are being tested.

Before the 2011 nuclear disaster, up to 60 percent of Nahara's municipal budget was financed by payments from Tepco and grants given to the town by the state for accepting the nuclear plants. The majority of Naraha's residents worked either directly or indirectly for the two Tepco-operated plants which featured a total of 10 nuclear reactors.

But while its proximity to the plants temporarily sealed the town's fate, more than half of Naraha's revenue still comes from the utility company. The decommissioning process is creating new jobs, and the crippled plant has now become a giant construction site employing some 7,000 workers each day.

Kentaro Aoki also sees an opportunity. The 26-year old has been working for a year for a cooperative which specializes in breeding river salmon at Naraha's new port. Before that, Aoki worked for three years helping clean up the crippled plant. "I wouldn't say no if Tepco called me up again," he told DW. While the job is a "bit dangerous" and his parents oppose it, it's a much better paid than what he's doing at the moment, he indicated. Just like most returnees, he hesitates to criticize the nuclear industry, adding that the repaired reactors on the coastline could still be used.

Mayor Matsumoto also does not want to blame and criticize operator Tepco. "There was a lack of attention paid towards ensuring the safety of the plant," he said. However, he stressed that this is now a thing of the past. "It's been five years since it happened and I now want to focus on the future and move forward."