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49% of Fukushima nuke disaster evacuees returning home to live are elderly: survey

In the background, from left, the No. 1, 2, 3, and 4 reactor buildings of the Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant are seen, in Okuma, Fukushima Prefecture, on Oct. 31, 2016. In front are tanks used to store contaminated water. (Mainichi)

Nearly half of people currently living in nuclear disaster-hit areas in Fukushima Prefecture where evacuation orders have been lifted are aged 65 or over, a survey conducted by the Mainichi Shimbun has found.

    The population aging rate -- the ratio of people in this age group to the population -- in these areas is nearly twice the figure before the outbreak of the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant disaster in March 2011, as many younger evacuees have not come back to their hometowns for fear of being exposed to radiation or have settled down in areas where they took shelter.

    The regional communities in these areas could be endangered because their current population is less than 10 percent of the pre-disaster figure and households in these areas consist of smaller member numbers.

    The Mainichi Shimbun surveyed nine cities, towns and villages in Fukushima Prefecture about the situations of areas where evacuation orders had been lifted by this past spring

    As of July and August, 5,951 people in 2,970 households have returned to or newly moved into these areas. Of these people, 2,929, or 49.2 percent, are aged at least 65.

    According to a national census conducted in 2010 -- before the March 2011 disaster -- the rate was 27.4 percent in all areas of these nine municipalities.

    The latest figure is above the anticipated population aging rate in Japan for 2065, which the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research put at 38.4 percent.

    Of all the nine municipalities, the population aging rate in the village of Kawauchi is the highest at 71.3 percent. The town of Naraha has the lowest figure, but it still stands at 37 percent.

    The figures in Kawauchi and two other municipalities among these nine are higher than the 60.5 percent in the village of Nanmoku, Gunma Prefecture, which had the highest population aging rate of all municipalities in Japan in the 2015 census.

    The number of people who currently live in the areas where evacuation orders have been lifted is less than 10 percent the number of people registered as residents just before the disaster, which was slightly above 60,000.

    Members of a growing number of households in these areas are living separately. The average number of members per household is two, almost equal to the figure in Tokyo at 2.02 in the 2015 census, which is the smallest number among all 47 prefectures. In the 2010 pre-disaster census, the average figure in the nine municipalities had been 3.04.

    An official of the city of Minamisoma, one of the nine municipalities, expressed concerns about the aging of its population. "There'll be a growing number of cases where people living by themselves die alone and where an elderly family member has to look after another elderly member," the official said.

    In Minamisoma, only a limited number of medical institutions and nursing care facilities have reopened. "There's a serious workforce shortage," the official lamented.

    Only about five of 94 members of volunteer firefighters in the village of Katsurao have returned home since the evacuation order was lifted.

    An official of the Katsurao Municipal Government voiced fears about the shortage of volunteer firefighters. "We are worried that it will be difficult to mobilize these volunteers if a fire breaks out in the village. As long as there are not enough young people, it'll be difficult to maintain the fire brigade in the village," the official said.

    Ritsumeikan University associate professor Fuminori Tanba, who was involved in the compilation of restoration plans in municipalities where evacuation orders were issued, noted, "The situation of areas affected by the nuclear crisis heralds the future situation of Japan where the birthrate is declining and the population is aging. Local governments need to join hands across broad areas in addressing challenges that cannot be tackled by a single municipality, such as nursing care and disaster management," he said.

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