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How 2 Towns That Host Fukushima Power Plant Recover After 2011 Nuclear Disaster

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

How do you reopen a nuclear exclusion zone? That is a question Japan has been trying to answer since 2011, when an earthquake triggered a massive tsunami that overwhelmed the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. It was one of the worst nuclear disasters ever. The Japanese government has since poured billions of dollars into cleanup and recovery. And the gates that have barred people from coming home have started to come down. But for many, returning is not so simple.

NPR's Kat Lonsdorf went to Fukushima to find out what recovery looks like nearly a decade later. We'll be hearing her stories all week. And today, the story of the two towns that host the Daiichi nuclear power plant.

KAT LONSDORF, BYLINE: On a cold night earlier this spring, the gate to the last completely closed town in Fukushima prefecture was unlocked...

(SOUNDBITE OF METAL CLANGING)

LONSDORF: ...And pulled back...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Japanese).

LONSDORF: ...For good. This is Futaba, a town that was once home to over 7,000 people - at least until the disaster, when plumes of radioactive material were carried by the wind for miles. Whole towns were suddenly abandoned for years. Since then, Futaba has been stuck in an eerie freeze frame of tragedy.

I'm going to step foot in the town of Futaba - 'cause it's officially open - into what looks like a pretty quaint, little city street - little buildings and shops. Of course, no one lives here, so it's a deserted city street that we're walking down.

Nearly everything looks as it did on the day of the earthquake. Broken glass litters the sidewalks. The entrance to a temple is toppled into the street. Goods from shelves are strewn to the ground, covered in dust and grime.

Masato Suzuki is the sole police officer assigned to Futaba.

MASATO SUZUKI: (Speaking Japanese).

LONSDORF: "No one can live here yet," he says. "There's no electricity, no water, no infrastructure."

MASATO: (Speaking Japanese).

LONSDORF: He says his biggest worry now is the wild boar that roam the streets. Only these few blocks of downtown Futaba are open, a tiny percentage of the town. The rest is still sealed off behind gates, deemed too unsafe for the public. Futaba, once lively, now mostly sounds like this.

(SOUNDBITE OF WEEDS RUSTLING)

LONSDORF: Tall weeds that have pushed their way through every crack, whispering in the wind.

(SOUNDBITE OF WEEDS RUSTLING)

LONSDORF: The Daiichi nuclear power plant, owned by Tokyo Electric Power Company, or TEPCO, was built straddling two towns - Futaba to the north and Okuma to the south. Parts of Okuma reopened last year and, in a lot of ways, that town is doing better.

(SOUNDBITE OF CONSTRUCTION AMBIENCE)

LONSDORF: There's a lot of construction happening here - a beautiful new town hall and a planned community with dozens of identical one-story houses lining newly paved roads. And people are actually living here, too...

KAZUKO ENDO: (Laughter).

LONSDORF: ...Like Kazuko Endo, who's gardening outside one of the new homes. She used to live in Okuma before the disaster but not here.

KAZUKO: (Speaking Japanese).

LONSDORF: "This used to be rice paddies," she says. Her old home is still behind gates, rotting.

KAZUKO: (Through translator) Everything is different now. It's a different town, even if it has the same name.

LONSDORF: Okuma used to have a population of over 11,000. Now there are less than 200.

KAZUKO: (Through translator) There are only old people here, which I guess includes me (laughter). What young family would want to live here? Any school, hospital or grocery store is miles away.

LONSDORF: But it's not just the lack of conveniences that has kept people from moving back. The worry about radiation is constant in this part of Fukushima. There are radiation monitors in parks, outside train stations and flashing along highways.

Radiation levels have generally decreased since the accident, both due to human cleanup and the natural decay of radioactive particles. But there are still a lot of hot spots, places where radiation levels are worryingly high. The Japanese government insists that the areas being reopened are safe. But trust in the government plummeted after the disaster. A lot of people just aren't willing to take the risk.

MASAATO SAKI: (Speaking Japanese).

LONSDORF: Instead, many who moved back have come to live out their final days, like 98-year-old Masaato Saki. Saki grew up here, and he remembers using candles and lanterns as a kid.

MASAATO: (Through interpreter) Nuclear power did make life more convenient.

LONSDORF: There were lightbulbs and appliances.

MASAATO: (Through interpreter) But I'm not so sure it was worth it.

LONSDORF: He gets out a big scroll of paper and unrolls it on his kitchen table.

MASAATO: (Speaking Japanese).

LONSDORF: It's a family tree. Saki now spends his time trying to track down nearly 200 members of his family, scattered after the disaster. The construction company he owned helped build several of the reactors at Daiichi. And he nods sadly at his role constructing the very thing that forced everyone to flee.

MASAATO: (Through interpreter) This town needed nuclear. We coexisted with it, and I profited from it. But now, look at the town. We'll never be the same.

LONSDORF: He gestures toward the old downtown Okuma, two miles away behind a gate. It's abandoned and overgrown with weeds, rusted shutters clanking with every breeze.

(SOUNDBITE OF METAL CLANGING)

LONSDORF: These two towns, Okuma and Futaba, once gained a lot from nuclear power. When Daiichi was built here back in the '70s, they shared a wealth of subsidies and tax revenue.

DANIEL P ALDRICH: This was a lifeline for them.

LONSDORF: Daniel P. Aldrich is a professor at Northeastern University. He studied the huge economic gains that nuclear power host towns originally got in Japan.

ALDRICH: They built new roads. They built new bridges. They built old-age homes. I can't remember - the community - someone bought a gold brick and put it in the local government offices for people to look at. That's how much money was coming in. People didn't even know what to do with this money.

LONSDORF: The incentives needed to be tempting for energy-starved Japan to rise as an economic power. Lots of towns signed on. And over time, Japan built 54 nuclear reactors all across the country. But the money for communities didn't last long. And perhaps no one knows that better than 71-year-old Katsutaka Idogawa.

KATSUTAKA IDOGAWA: (Speaking Japanese).

LONSDORF: He was mayor of Futaba during the disaster. Now he's retired and lives hundreds of miles away. He's turned the top floor of an old camera store into an office, where he spends every day meticulously documenting what happened to his town.

KATSUTAKA: (Through interpreter) People really believed that without nuclear power, Futaba couldn't survive. And I thought that was very dangerous.

LONSDORF: Idogawa says at the time of the accident, all that wealth had run out.

KATSUTAKA: (Speaking Japanese).

LONSDORF: He pulls out a big binder and flips to a page to show that when he became mayor in 2004, Futaba was nearly bankrupt. He cut his salary in half and in half again. The town had just agreed to host two more reactors to get more money, more subsidies. They were being built at Daiichi when disaster struck.

KATSUTAKA: (Through interpreter) Futaba was addicted to the nuclear money. But what were the consequences? We didn't get prosperity.

LONSDORF: Now Idogawa works day and night. His wife left him. His grown children have moved away. And he thinks every day about the hometown he lost. He says sometimes he can close his eyes and still feel the first warm breeze of summer there.

KATSUTAKA: (Through interpreter) I miss everything. If I start talking about what I miss, it'll take too long.

LONSDORF: Idogawa points to an old picture of Futaba from before 2011. The streets are clean. There are no weeds. And there's a big welcome sign to the town that reads...

KATSUTAKA: (Speaking Japanese).

LONSDORF: ..."Nuclear energy for a bright future." That sign was quietly removed after the disaster. He looks at the photo and sighs.

KATSUTAKA: (Through interpreter) I took that life for granted. I lost it all.

LONSDORF: "I feel so much remorse," he says.

Kat Lonsdorf, NPR News, Fukushima, Japan.

CHANG: Kat Lonsdorf is NPR's Above the Fray fellow. Tomorrow, she'll take us inside Daiichi to look at the effects the disaster had on energy in Japan. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.