Officials resume lives in radiation-hit town in hope of paving way for mass return
By HIROKI ITO | Staff Writer | The Asahi Shimbun
NARAHA, Fukushima Prefecture--When Hiroshi Aoki boarded the first train of the day on a recent morning here, he was the only passenger.
Almost all of the town's 7,500 residents remain evacuated nearly four years after the outbreak of the crisis at the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant in March 2011, like 72,500 others from the affected localities.
Aoki, 59, is among four senior officials at the Naraha town government, including Mayor Yukihide Matsumoto, who returned to the town in December to live after obtaining a special permit from the central government and local authorities.
The officials aim at making it possible for residents to return to their homes as early as spring.
Naraha, which has an estimated annual radiation dose of 20 millisieverts or lower, is expected to be among the first of the localities affected by the nuclear fallout that its residents will likely be allowed to return home to live.
They decided to move back after residents urged them at gatherings to do so, to pave the way for the mass return. Many evacuees are anxious about moving back due to fears about radiation. The group is tasked with working out preparations for the town hall based on its findings.
When the nuclear crisis unfolded, most of the town was designated as part of the no-entry zone, a 20-kilometer radius around the beleaguered nuclear station.
Although a ban on entry to the town was lifted in August 2012, residents are still prohibited from staying overnight, except for special occasions such as the Bon summer season and the New Year's holiday.
Aoki, who heads a section that devises anti-radiation measures, lives with his 57-year-old wife, Hiromi, at their home not far from the town government building. He is usually stationed at Naraha town hall.
On that day in December, he took the train to Iwaki, where the makeshift Naraha town government has been operating since the mass evacuation. Train service from the town resumed only in June 2014.
Decontamination of the town by the central government was completed in March that year.
Aoki and his wife did not have much trouble restarting their life, as their home was spared from damage in the magnitude-9.0 Great East Japan Earthquake, as well as an outbreak of rats that affected a number of homes.
Aoki said one thing that struck him about the town was how dark it looked at night. The only lights are street lamps and those of the odd vehicle passing through.
Some town employees reported seeing wild boars in the pitch dark on their way back from work.
"It's no wonder people are wary of returning," Aoki said.
In a survey conducted in October, a combined 45.7 percent of Naraha evacuees said they were willing to return "immediately" or "when the conditions are right." The figure was up 5.5 percentage points from the previous poll last January.
A total of 22.9 percent of the respondents in the October poll said they would not return, down 1.3 points.
Most people who said they will return when conditions are right cited the restoration of infrastructure, including roads and hospitals.
Aoki believes leisure facilities should also be revived as early as possible to persuade people to move back to their communities.
Before the nuclear crisis, the town's baseball stadium was always lit up at night, with many people playing a game there or practicing.
Aoki himself had a daily routine of playing tennis after work.
"I am afraid people are not considering moving back to Naraha unless we reassure them that they will be able to engage in leisure activities as they did before the nuclear disaster."
About 20 town employees, including Aoki, now work in the town hall. Most of them commute to the town to oversee the storage of radioactive debris from cleanup work since operations were transferred to the Naraha town hall from Iwaki.
The remaining senior officials are expected to join the four when their homes become habitable again.
The town government is expected to present details of their plan for the mass return at meetings with residents inside and outside the prefecture starting this month.