Japan Reopens City Nearly Five Years After Fukushima Disaster

Japan has finally reopened the abandoned city of Naraha nearly five years after the devastating Fukushima disaster. The evacuation order, which has been in place since 2011, was lifted by the Japanese government on Saturday. This opened the way for displaced citizens to return to their homes, although it is unclear how many will actually return.

When the Fukushima nuclear power plant melted down in 2011, the fallout was devastating. It was the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl, and the ensuing evacuation of neighboring municipalities displaced roughly 100,000 people.

Naraha was one of seven municipalities located entirely within the evacuation area, which turned the once-thriving community into a ghost town.

At the time of the Fukushima disaster, 7,400 residents were evacuated from the city of Naraha. So while the city was gutted, this only represented a small percentage of the total number of people displaced by fallout from the Fukushima meltdown.

Decontamination work began shortly after the disaster, but it is far from done. The Fukushima plant itself is still dangerously radioactive, and workers cannot yet enter to begin cleanup procedures. According to CNN, decommissioning the plant is likely to cost in excess of $50 billion, and unlikely to be completed for several more years.

Although the area around Naraha itself has been deemed safe enough for Japan to reopen the city, Fukushima radiation concerns remain paramount. Before the Japanese government allowed residents to return to the newly reopened city, they were issued dosimeters to monitor radiation levels.

To date, Naraha is the only city to undergo total evacuation that has been reopened by the Japanese government. The New York Times, via the Associated Press, reports that while the government has previously allowed residents of a handful of smaller areas to return to their homes, only about half of them actually went home. It is unclear exactly how many of Naraha’s residents will return.

The process of reopening the city began in April, when the Japanese government started to work with displaced former residents of Naraha. Of the approximately 2,600 households displaced from the city, only about 100 signed up for the trial.

By August, interest in returning had risen a little. As the Japanese government opened registration to allowed residents to stay in their former homes overnight, ahead of the planned reopening, about 10 percent of the 7,400 displaced residents signed up.

Although many former residents remain concerned about lingering radiation, the reopening of the evacuated city has gone forward as planned. In a ceremony held on Saturday, Naraha Mayor Yukiei Matsumoto expressed hope that his town, and other nearby municipalities, will be able to finally recover from the disaster.

“Our clock started moving again. The lifting of the evacuation order is one key step, but this is just a start.”

Ordinary citizens are are also hopeful that their lives will finally be able to return to normal.

“My friends are all in different places because of the nuclear accident, and the town doesn’t even look the same,” Toshiko Yokoto, a 53-year-old woman from Naraha told the Associated Press. “But this is still my hometown and it really feels good to be back.”

While the future of Naraha remains murky, Toshiko and hundreds of others like her are the lucky ones. Until Japan reopens the other evacuated cities, many thousands more will remain displaced.

[Image via Getty Images AsiaPac]