The Yomiuri ShimbunIt is essential to explore the way a new community should be while enhancing assistance to residents returning to their hometowns.
An evacuation order has been lifted for part of the town of Okuma, Fukushima Prefecture, from which all residents were ordered to evacuate in the aftermath of the disaster at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant operated by Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings, Inc. This is the first time an evacuation order has been removed for a municipality where the power plant is located.
The order has been lifted for Okuma’s inland area, which accounts for 40 percent of the town’s area but only 4 percent of its population of registered residents, or slightly less than 400 people. About 20 households that have been staying in the town long-term — since last spring — in preparation for returning to their homes will become the first batch of returnees.
Okuma Mayor Toshitsuna Watanabe said, “We’re finally able to stand at the starting line for reconstruction.” A new town hall has been built in the area where the evacuation order was removed, and residents will begin moving into 50 disaster recovery public housing units in June. This can be said to be the first major step toward rehabilitating the town.
However, infrastructure that sustains residents’ livelihood, such as medical institutions and supermarkets, have yet to be built. Due to this, the Okuma municipal government will provide community bus services to make it easier for residents to use hospitals and commercial facilities in the adjacent town of Tomioka.
To prevent returnees from feeling inconvenienced, it is necessary for the town of Okuma to provide assistance for them in cooperation with neighboring cities, towns and villages.
About 7,900 of the town’s residents currently live in other municipalities in Fukushima Prefecture, while about 2,500 live as evacuees in other prefectures, including Tokyo and Ibaraki.
Ease residents’ anxiety
It is understandable that the Okuma municipal government is aiming to reopen elementary and junior high schools and create jobs with a view to encouraging residents to return home.
But according to a survey conducted in January on townspeople’s preferences, about 10 percent of respondents said they “want to return home” and 30 percent said they “cannot decide.” Those who answered they “have decided not to return” accounted for more than 50 percent of respondents.
Townspeople are believed to hesitate to return home for reasons such as landing a job in the place where they evacuated and having children who have become accustomed to the school they have been attending since evacuation. The town’s long-term reconstruction should be promoted on the premise that many evacuees will not return to their hometowns.
It is indispensable for the town to maintain ties with evacuees. The town must repeatedly exercise its ingenuity to work out measures, such as encouraging evacuees to take part in festivals and other events held in the area where the evacuation order has been lifted, and mailing public relations magazines to addresses to which townspeople evacuated.
It is also imperative to create a community that involves those people who are new to living in the town, including employees of Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings and workers engaged in decommissioning nuclear reactors at the Fukushima plant.
It is also important to carry out radioactive decontamination steadily. The area that was once the center of Okuma still has a high level of radiation and is thus designated as a zone to which it is difficult to return. The town plans to make it possible for residents to return to the central zone by the spring of 2020. The central government is called on to tackle decontamination work firmly.
The town has an interim nuclear waste storage facility to which the soil from decontamination work is transported. It is imperative to thoroughly control the flow of trucks transporting contaminated soil and ensure proper storage of such soil, thereby eliminating residents’ anxieties about radiation.