Returnees, mainly older people, attend an event marking the first anniversary of the lifting of the evacuation order in Naraha, Fukushima Prefecture, on Sept. 4.
NARAHA, Fukushima Prefecture–Only 10 percent of Naraha residents have returned home near the stricken Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant in the year since the evacuation order was lifted, a rate that could threaten the town’s survival.
More than half of the returnees are senior citizens, and a vast majority of town’s children do not plan to attend school in Naraha next year.
The town set of a goal of having 50 percent of evacuees return home by next spring.
But lingering fears of radiation contamination are keeping many residents away, despite repeated tests effectively showing no danger to health in the town.
“Work is still under way at the plant to prepare for decommissioning, and we are concerned about radiation exposure,” said a 67-year-old man who plans to move back to Naraha with his wife. “We cannot encourage our grandchildren to return.”
Naraha’s population was about 7,300 before the triple meltdown at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant in March 2011.
As of Sept. 2, the number of returnees to the town was 681.
Naraha, most of which lies within a 20-kilometer radius of the plant, was the first of seven municipalities to have its nearly full evacuation order lifted.
The evacuation order for Naraha was lifted on Sept. 5, 2015.
The central and prefectural governments are closely watching how things play out in the town to carry out rebuilding efforts in other affected communities.
The Reconstruction Agency’s survey released in March found that more than 50 percent of Naraha evacuees are looking forward to their eventual return home.
“We expect the town’s population to go up in steps,” said an official with the town’s chamber of commerce and industry.
But the official acknowledged that business activities will not be sustainable with only a 10-percent returning rate.
A senior town government official said, “If evacuees stay away, we would have to think about a merger (with other local governments).”
Those aged 65 or older account for 53 percent of Naraha’s current population, double the rate in 2010.
A total of about 680 students attended the two elementary schools and one junior high school in the town before the disaster.
Although the three schools are expected to re-open next April, a recent town government survey showed that only about 80 of the eligible 450 children plan to attend school in Naraha.
The average radiation dose in front of the Naraha town hall in July was 0.1 microsievert per hour, almost the same as the average dose near JR Fukushima Station in the prefectural capital, which is far from the crippled plant and was never issued an evacuation order.
The Naraha dose is also lower than 0.23 microsievert per hour, the long-term goal for additional radiation exposure, which excludes background radiation.
Mayor Yukiei Matsumoto said he hopes construction of housing and commercial facilities will pave the way for evacuees to move back to their hometown.
“With our expectations, we somewhat inflated the repatriation goal,” Matsumoto said. “As housing, commercial and other facilities are put in place, the number of returnees will rise.”
The town is working on a project to build a “compact town,” where shops and housing units, as well as a prefectural government-supported clinic, are located within easy access from each other.
Costs for the project are covered by grants from the central and prefectural governments.
The commercial facility is scheduled to open in spring 2018.