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Fukushima town opens new local gov't building 8 years after disaster

A resident, left, of Okuma, Fukushima Prefecture, is seen at the town's new government building filling out paperwork for a certificate on May 7, 2019. (Mainichi/Naoki Watanabe)

OKUMA, Fukushima -- The town government here resumed operations in a new building on May 7, eight years and two months after the area was evacuated in the wake of the nuclear disaster caused by the March 2011 earthquake and tsunamis.

The return of services comes after evacuation orders were lifted in April for some parts of the town, which are situated only 8 kilometers from the failed Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station. Until now, public services were relocated to the city of Aizuwakamatsu, some 100 kilometers away. The move back marks the first step in a community revival plan that has waited almost a decade to get underway.

The new building in the town's Ogawara district comprises two stories and occupies about 5,469 square meters of floor space. Around 100 employees have moved to dormitories in the district or to nearby Iwaki, a commutable distance away, also in Fukushima Prefecture.

Mayor Toshitsuna Watanabe spoke to workers at the reopening. "We've reached a new stage of reconstruction. As we aim to improve residents' services and speed up the recovery, I want you all to use this building as the frontline in making Okuma's recovery more than just words."

Public dwellings for 50 households affected by the disaster are set to open in June, and work on a shopping area continues for a February 2020 start. However, residents registered in areas where evacuation orders have been lifted represent only 3.5% of the town's population. The center of the town, where the former municipal government center was based, is still designated a "difficult-to-return zone." On reopening day, signs of residents were scarce, while traffic from vehicles connected with Fukushima's recovery and reactor decommissioning was abundant.

Yoshiteru Watanabe, a plumber who evacuated to Iwaki, came back to get certificates reissued. "The town has taken the first step in returning to life. It looks different but it's still nostalgic. I hope they can work hard for the community and bring it back to the way it was," he said. But as a father of four elementary school age children he said he wasn't considering returning, citing fears for the local environment's safety and the continuing demolition of his home in the town's restricted area.

(Japanese original by Naoki Watanabe, Fukushima Bureau, and Tatsushi Inui, Iwaki Local Bureau)

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