Japan's nuclear refugees return to a bleak future

NARAHA • Mr Tokuo Hayakawa carries a dosimeter around with him at his 600-year-old temple in Naraha, the first town in the Fukushima "exclusion zone" to fully reopen since Japan's March 2011 catastrophe. Badges declaring "No to nuclear power" adorn his Buddhist robe.

Mr Hayakawa is one of the few residents to return to this agricultural town since it began welcoming back nuclear refugees five months ago. The town, at the edge of a 20km evacuation zone around the crippled Fukushima Daiichi plant, was supposed to be a model of reconstruction.

Five years ago, one of the biggest earthquakes in history shook the country's north-east. The 10m tsunami it spawned smashed into the power plant on the Fukushima coastline, triggering a meltdown and forcing nearby towns to evacuate. The disaster killed more than 19,000 people across Japan and caused an estimated 16.9 trillion yen (S$207 billion) in damages.

Only 440 of Naraha's pre-disaster population of 8,042 have returned - nearly 70 per cent of them over 60. "This region will definitely go extinct," said Mr Hayakawa, 76. He says he cannot grow food because he fears the rice paddies are still contaminated. Large plastic bags filled with radioactive topsoil and detritus dot the abandoned fields.

With few rituals to perform at the temple, Mr Hayakawa devotes his energy to campaigning against nuclear power. Its 54 reactors supplied over 30 per cent of the nation's energy needs before the disaster. Today, only three units are back in operation after a long shutdown following the nuclear meltdown in Fukushima. Others are looking to restart.

"I can't tell my grandson to be my heir," said Mr Hayakawa, pointing at a photo of his now-teenage grandson entering the temple in a full protective suit after the disaster. "Reviving this town is impossible," he said. "I came back to see it to its death."

That is bound to disappoint Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Rebuilding Naraha and other towns in the devastated north- east, he says, is crucial to reviving Japan. Tokyo pledged 26.3 trillion yen over five years to rebuild the disaster area and will allocate another six trillion yen for the next five years.

More than 160,000 people were evacuated from towns around the No. 1 nuclear plant. Around 10 per cent still live in temporary housing across Fukushima prefecture. Most have settled outside their hometowns and have begun new lives.

Little feels normal in Naraha. Many homes damaged in the disaster have been abandoned. Most of the town's population consists of workers. They are helping to shut down Tokyo Electric Power's No. 1 reactors or working on decontamination projects around town. The town's future depends on young people returning, residents say. But only 12 below the age of 30 have returned as radiation worries linger.

With few people coming back, there is little meaning in what the reconstruction department in Naraha does, said one town hall official who requested anonymity.

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 04, 2016, with the headline 'Japan's nuclear refugees return to a bleak future'. Print Edition | Subscribe