The town of Okuma in Fukushima Prefecture, which houses the Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant and where the majority of residential areas have been designated as „difficult-to-return zones,“ is designing a new sub-town in the form of a reconstruction hub, which will be located in residential zones with comparatively low radiation levels.
It is envisioned that the new zone will encompass a total area of around 40 hectares — around 0.5 percent of the town as a whole — and will house some 3,000 residents.
The Okuma town mayoral race, during which the need for the new residential area should by all accounts be raised as an issue to be questioned, was announced on Nov. 5. There are no likely candidates, however, other than sitting incumbent Toshitsuna Watanabe.
Even Watanabe himself has said, „I had actually hoped to retire and pass along the job to someone younger“ — a statement belying his true feelings, which only goes to show how fraught with difficulties the road ahead truly is.
„I plan to take on the task of implementing local development so that residents can feel their hometown is moving toward recovery one step at a time,“ commented Watanabe, 68, who is seeking a third term in office, in his first campaign speech on the morning of Nov. 5 in the Fukushima prefectural city of Aizuwakamatsu, which is located some 100 kilometers west of Okuma.
A temporary building for the Okuma town government has been set up in Aizuwakamatsu, where around 1,500 Okuma residents are additionally living in temporary housing facilities.
Okuma’s population stood at 10,778 as of the end of October, with 23 percent of the town’s residents having evacuated outside of Fukushima Prefecture — mostly within the Kanto region.
The designated „difficult-to-return zones“ — whose prospects for residents ever being able to go back are unclear — comprise some 62 percent of the town’s total area, and around 96 percent of its residential districts.
In September of last year, the town agreed to be one of the locations to host temporary storage for radioactively contaminated soil and other materials resulting from radiation decontamination work — with the area targeted for the facility covering around one-third of the town’s residential area.
Even so, some residents — the majority of them elderly individuals — insist that they wish to return to Okuma. It was within this context that the town government announced plans in March of this year to construct the new, smaller town in Okuma’s residential Ogawara district, which is designated as a restricted residence area where decontamination work has been carried out for residents to return within a few years.
New facilities are targeted to be built within an agricultural area of around 40 hectares in the new zone, including office buildings and research centers for the nuclear reactor decommissioning projects, as well as disaster recovery public housing for local residents.
The plan envisages around 2,000 reactor decommissioning workers living in the area in three years‘ time, along with some 1,000 Okuma locals, mainly elderly residents, returning to the town.
While the town government had at one time considered constructing a local elderly care facility, this plan was rejected due to the likelihood that not enough employees could be recruited to work there.
In addition, the town has no plans to rebuild elementary or junior high schools, with few parents bringing their children back to live in the town due to fears regarding the effects of radiation.
„Those who return here will likely be elderly individuals living on their own,“ commented a high-ranking town official. „For such people who have the desire to live here, we wanted to give them hope.“
Watanabe began telling others last autumn that he planned to retire as mayor, saying that his „back pain makes it difficult to work.“
Every town assembly member that he approached as a possible successor, however, declined — citing the numerous problems with local administration that made the job appear too daunting. Eventually, Watanabe was convinced to change his mind about retiring.
When he announced his candidacy at the beginning of October, with less than one month left before the deadline to do so, he let slip the comment that „things really aren’t seeming to go my way.“
A man in his 60s who is living in temporary housing in Aizuwakamatsu said, „Plans need to be put into place so that people who wish to return home may do so.“
He added apprehensively, however, „I wonder if a town that has no children and only elderly residents can actually work.“