The lights of 750 housing units for Tokyo Electric Power Co. employees shine in the foreground in Okuma, Fukushima Prefecture, as the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant glimmers in the back.
OKUMA, Fukushima Prefecture–As Kazutoshi Mabuchi drove down a mountain road here in the darkness, carefully avoiding a wild boar crossing his path, a cluster of orange-lit housing units suddenly came into view under the night sky.
These dwellings accommodate about 750 employees of Tokyo Electric Power Co., operator of the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, which Okuma co-hosts.
“It looks like a casino that popped up in the desert out of nowhere,” said Mabuchi, 71, as he patrolled the town.
Mabuchi could see a cafeteria where some TEPCO employees were dining while watching TV.
All 11,000 residents of Okuma were forced to evacuate after the nuclear disaster unfolded at the plant, triggered by the magnitude-9.0 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami on March 11, 2011.
The town has been almost entirely empty since, with 96 percent of it designated as a “difficult-to-return zone” due to the high radiation levels. That means it is unknown if and when the evacuees will ever be able to return to their former homes to live. Barricades are put up on the roads as well as in front of the houses in the zone to prevent entry.
The TEPCO housing units are located in Okuma’s Ogawara district, which is excluded from the difficult-to-return zone. Classified as a restricted residence area due to relatively lower doses of radiation compared with most parts of the town, evacuees can visit Ogawara freely, but they cannot stay overnight.
Mabuchi is from Ogawara, and he, like all the other 360 people in the district, is still evacuated.
He drives four and a half hours each week to Okuma from Chiba Prefecture, where he moved to live with his daughter’s family after the triple meltdown. He and two others work on a shift to patrol Okuma for three days, a task commissioned by the town government since the autumn of 2012.
Local officials hope to get the residence restriction designation for Osuma lifted by March 2019 by carrying out extensive decontamination operations there.
But it remains unclear whether evacuees will return even if the area’s radiation readings drop enough to allow it to be habitable again.
A survey by the town shows that only one in three former residents is willing to return. The damaged roofs of the houses in the district remain covered with plastic sheets. Rice paddies and fields are strewn with numerous traces of holes dug up by wild boars.
Construction of the TEPCO housing units in Ogawara began in October 2015. The government granted a permit to the utility as a special case, saying the company is the “essential party in leading the recovery and rebuilding efforts” in Fukushima Prefecture.
The 750 single-person units were all occupied by the end of 2016 after TEPCO workers began moving in to them last July.
The utility says in its literature that the company “expects its employees residing there to contribute to rebuilding the town and reassurance of the people.”
“In addition to our objective of grappling with the decommissioning process squarely, we wanted to make visible our determination to help the rebuilding of local communities,” said Yoshiyuki Ishizaki, head of the company’s Fukushima Revitalization Headquarters, about the housing project.
Many of the employees are shuttled by bus between the sprawling nuclear complex and their units, wearing the same uniform and eating the same food.
“It is like we are on a conveyer belt, and our houses are part of the plant,” said one of the employees living there, referring to the absence of signs of a normal life, such as children playing on the ground and parents hurrying back home from their workplace.
There were more than 10 TEPCO dorms along the coastal area of Fukushima Prefecture before the nuclear disaster, which struck 40 years after the plant’s first reactor went online.
Locals affectionately called the occupants of the dorms “Toden-san” (TEPCO-san) before the accident. TEPCO employees were active participants in local events, such as cleanup efforts on holidays, sports meets and festivals, to fit in with their host communities.
With the nuclear accident, however, that community life completely disappeared.
“I am not going to return to Ogawara to live,” Mabuchi said while taking a break from the patrol.
He had his house razed in January. But he has carried on with the patrol for his neighbors’ sake.
“I am hoping that the town will continue to exist just for the people who want to go back home,” he said.
As the sky clouded over, the only lights visible in the dark came from the lights in the TEPCO lodgings.
“This is no longer Ogawara,” he said, and slid into his car.