Cleanup in Kawauchi, a village in Fukushima Prefecture. In Okuma, decontamination efforts have been slow to reduce radiation dosages, and hopes of returning to their ancestral lands have faded for evacuated residents. Ko Sasaki for The New York Times

By MARTIN FACKLER
25 November 2012

AIZU-WAKAMATSU, Japan (The New York Times) – As cold northerly winds sprinkle the first snow on the mountains surrounding this medieval city, those who fled here after last year’s Fukushima nuclear disaster are losing hope that they will ever return to their old homes.

The mayor of Okuma, a town near the Fukushima Daiichi plant that was hastily evacuated when a huge earthquake and tsunami crippled the reactors’ cooling systems on March 11, 2011, has vowed to lead residents back home as soon as radiation levels are low enough. But the slow pace of the government’s cleanup efforts, and the risk of another leak from the plant’s reactors, forced local officials to admit in September that it might be at least a decade before the town could be resettled.

A growing number of evacuees from Okuma have become pessimistic about ever living there again. At a temporary housing complex here in Aizu-Wakamatsu, a city 60 miles west of the plant, the mostly elderly residents say they do not have that much time or energy left to rebuild their town.

Many said they preferred plans that got them out of temporary housing but helped them maintain the friendships and communal bonds built over a lifetime, like rebuilding the town farther away from the plant.

“I was one of those who kept saying, ‘We will go back, we will go back!’ ” said Toshiko Iida, 78, who fled her rice farm three miles south of the plant. “Now, they are saying it will be years before we can go back. I’ll be dead then.”

Such feelings of resignation are shared by many of the 159,000 people who fled their towns after the earthquake and tsunami caused a triple meltdown at the Fukushima plant, spewing radiation over a wide area of northeastern Japan in the worst nuclear accident since the 1986 disaster at Chernobyl, in what was then the Soviet Union.

After first being reassured by the authorities that the accident was not so bad, then encouraged as the government began its costly decontamination effort, many evacuees are finally accepting that it may take decades, perhaps generations, before their town could be restored to anything like it was before the disaster.

“We all want to go back, but we have to face the obvious,” said Koichi Soga, 75, a retired carpenter who once worked on reactor buildings at the plant. “Look at the Soviet Union. They are still not back, right?”

Such sentiments have led to a very public loss of hope by the 11,350 displaced residents of Okuma, one of nine communities within 12 miles of the stricken plant that were evacuated.

After living in school gymnasiums and other shelters for about a month, Okuma’s town hall officials and about 4,300 of its residents relocated to temporary sites in Aizu-Wakamatsu, with most of the rest scattered as far as Tokyo, about 140 miles away. The mayor, Toshitsuna Watanabe, immediately began drawing up plans for returning to Okuma that called for a group to resettle a small corner of the town where radiation levels were relatively low. The settlers would then slowly expand the livable areas, decontaminating one street or building at a time, like colonists reclaiming a post-apocalyptic wilderness. […]

But the ministry said this summer that an experimental effort to decontaminate a 42-acre area in Okuma had failed to reduce radiation dosages by as much as had been hoped, leading officials to declare most of the town uninhabitable for at least another five years. That forced Okuma’s officials to change the target date of their “road map” for repopulating the town to 2022, instead of 2014.

“People are giving up because we have been hit by negative news after negative news,” said Mr. Watanabe, 65, who set up a temporary town hall in a former girls’ high school on a corner of Aizu-Wakamatsu’s six-century-old castle. “Keeping our road map is the only way to hold onto hope, and prevent the town from disappearing.”

Mr. Watanabe admits that his plan has a dwindling number of adherents. In response to a questionnaire sent to Okuma’s evacuees by the town hall in September, only 11 percent of the 3,424 households that responded said they wanted to go back, while 45.6 percent said they had no intention of ever returning, mostly because of radiation fears. […]

Hopes of Home Fade Among Japan’s Displaced

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