Empty streets where only wild animals and escaped pets roam. For years, Okuma was one of the ghost towns around the Fukushima power plant after the 2011 nuclear disaster. All residents that were evacuated, disappeared. After eight years they can go back. But do they want to?
There are still seven municipalities to which the residents cannot yet return, but around 40 percent of Okuma has been declared habitable again. The authorities have done everything to convince the residents. The land has been cleaned, the infrastructure has been improved and even a new town hall has been erected.
Yet the interest is disappointing, says correspondent Kjeld Duits from NOS Radio 1 Journal.
“Out of the 10,000 residents of Okuma, a total of 367 people have now registered to return. That is only 3.5 percent. People are scared. Especially young families with children. Many people have also lost confidence in the government. Maybe it is indeed safe in that 40 percent of Okuma, but many of the residents do not believe it. ”
Many residents eventually want to go back, Duits suspects, just not now. “The place where you grow up is very important for the Japanese. There is also the grave of your ancestors. The land has often been in the family for generations. But many people are still scared. Even if you have scientific evidence that it is safe, when it comes to your children you don’t take any risks. ”
What may also scare off residents is that the decommissioning of the nuclear power plant has yet to begin. High radiation levels were still measured in one of the reactors in 2017. Duits: “They are still cleaning the area around it, and searching for the places where the molten nuclear fuel is located. The decommissioning must begin in the coming years, but the way it should be done is not really clear. ”
The Olympic Games are coming. The government wants to show: you see, it’s all safe. – Kjeld Duits, correspondent in Japan
Even in areas that were opened to residents years ago, things are still not going strong. This is also because there are few facilities. “There are not enough hospitals, schools and shops. You are not going to open a supermarket there for 300 people, or it must be because you want to do something to rebuild the city.”
Why is the government already making so much effort to encourage residents to return? “You have to ask Prime Minister Abe, but in part it’s probably PR. The Olympic Games are coming. The government wants to show: you see, it’s all safe.”
But economic interests also play a role. “A major problem is that many countries in Asia, such as China, South Korea and Taiwan, still do not want to import agricultural products from a part of Japan. By opening these cities again for the residents, they are bringing out the message: It is safe, you can trust our products. ”
Six old men
The government also wants nuclear power stations in Japan to be able to open again. Some old power stations were closed after the disaster. Others were adapted to new high safety requirements. “The chief executive of the largest interest group of large companies in Japan also said this week that it is important for the country that nuclear power plants are turned on again.”
In recent years, residents of Okuma were occasionally allowed to return to their homes to collect things, but they were not allowed to stay overnight. The only people who did that were six old men who tried to keep the ghost town a little clean and safe. “When they started six years ago, they said: we are old, let’s not expose young people to the radiation. We make sure that this place stays safe from all kinds of things being stolen. They patrolled the streets and when a tree fell, they took it away. ”
The government itself has also worked hard to restore Okuma. But what in turn does not help is that the radioactively contaminated soil that has been removed is stored in the town itself. Duits: “There is still no permanent storage solution around. That scares people. So it will take many years before Okuma becomes a real living city again.”