National

Tainted Fukushima towns stuck in time as decon crews plug away

Five years after the nuclear disaster triggered by the huge earthquake and tsunami, reconstruction has made little progress in parts of Fukushima Prefecture. A Kyodo News reporter drove National Route 6 northward to the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant to witness the lingering effects of the calamity.

In the town of Hirono, in the southeast, many shops and buildings remain empty. North of Hirono is the town of Naraha, most of which lies within the 20-km-radius hot zone around Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s radiation-leaking power plant.

The nuclear disaster forced Hirono to move its operations to other municipalities in the prefecture, while Naraha was designated an evacuation zone.

Now the towns have a radiation level below 1 millisievert per year — a level the government is trying to achieve in other areas via decontamination — and residence restrictions and evacuation orders have been lifted, with Hirono’s town office returning to its original place.

However, many residents are reluctant to go back to their homes. So far only 48 percent of Hirono’s population and 6 percent of Naraha’s have returned.

Yet hotels and other lodgings were busy accommodating out-of-prefecture workers seeking decontamination and construction work. All 275 rooms at a hotel in Hirono built for the reconstruction support scheme three years ago are “almost fully reserved for the next month,” the front desk clerk said.

A worker in his 50s who came from Tokyo to oversee decontamination work said he earns more than ¥16,000 ($145) per day. Another man staying at the hotel said he was on a three-week contract and received ¥25,000 a day. Their lodging was paid for by their employers.

At night, there was only one pub open in Hirono.

“The shopping area is deserted, although schools have resumed,” said a woman who works there. Still, the pub was full, mainly with visitors not from Fukushima.

In Tomioka, parts of which are still designated as in the “difficult to return” zone, most retail buildings on both sides of the main road have been abandoned and are decaying. Bags of contaminated soil sit piled up near the shore — now a huge makeshift storage site.

In a similar zone in the town of Okuma, which co-hosts the plant, three men in white protective suits were conducting decontamination in a field under a cloud of dust.

Nearby, a large boar suddenly crossed the road.

Soon after the nuclear disaster struck five years ago, untended cows and dogs were seen wandering around looking for food, but now boars are a frequent site, local people say.

In a residential part of Okuma, quake-damaged roads have been fixed but houses are being left as they are. The only sounds are chirping birds and the wind.

At a railway station, radiation over 10 microsieverts per hour is detected just above a covered drain. Although radiation in the “difficult to return” zones in Okuma and neighboring Futaba — the two towns hosting the nuclear plant — is much lower than it was immediately after the meltdowns, there are many hot spots measuring over 5 microsieverts — dozens of times higher than the government’s goal.

A Futaba resident who was showing the area to foreign journalists said, “The word ‘reconstruction’ has no relevance to this town.”

In Minamisoma — farther north of the Fukushima No. 1 complex — some areas are still designated as restricted residential zones.

“The number of jobs, such as decontamination work, has increased, but most of them are taken by people coming from outside the prefecture. We can hardly say this place has been enlivened again,” said Masayoshi Kariura, a Catholic priest.

“The pileup of contaminated soil that is clearly visible is weighing heavily on the residents,” he said.

Coronavirus banner