A Year After Evacuating, Residents Long to Return to Homes Near Fukushima Plant

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Kim Kyung-hoon / Reuters

Evacuees of Okuma look around the abandoned Japanese town, located in Fukushima prefecture, during their visit to mark the one-year anniversary of the 2011 quake, tsunami and nuclear disaster on March 11, 2012

Chitose Nakano pulls two tall cans of Asahi Dry and a 7-Eleven roll cake out of a plastic shopping bag, and sets them on the white cloth. A cacophony of shutters clicks as the 36-year-old, fully clad in a white protective suit and mask, bows. It’s early morning on March 11, exactly one year after a deadly tsunami killed her husband of eight years. The couple was living in a coastal neighborhood of Okuma, less than a mile away from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Nakano had to evacuate before she knew for sure that her husband was dead. “I asked him today to protect us,” she later said of the offering. “He loved roll cake.”

Nakano was one of three residents of Okuma who went back to this abandoned town on the one-year anniversary of the 9.0-magnitude earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis that hit Japan’s northeast coast on March 11, 2011. It was a menacing but beautiful morning. A slate gray sky loomed over the swaths of dry, fallow fields. The late winter sun played on waves that broke onto an empty coast. A caravan of buses carrying the residents, city officials, journalists and representatives of Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency wound through the empty town, passing empty car lots and vending machines conveniently located for no one. A patch of newspaper was optimistically taped over the broken window of a McDonald’s — a sign of hope that someday, people would be back, ordering cheeseburgers and milk shakes.

(PHOTOS: Japan One Year Later: Photographs by James Nachtwey)

Nobody knows for sure whether or not Okuma — population 11,500 before last March — will ever be inhabited again. Measurements taken on March 11 by journalists showed radiation levels of between 20-50 microsieverts per hour in different locations around town. (The dose at which the government requires evacuation is roughly 2.3 microsieverts per hour, or the equivalent of 20 millisieverts per year). Like other towns inside the mandatory evacuation zone surrounding the plant, Okuma has undergone some decontamination and is awaiting the results of tests that could help city officials figure out their plan. “Some want to come back. Some don’t want to come back,” says Sigero Suzuki, Okuma’s deputy mayor. “For the people who do, we will try to help them do it.”

Not everyone has strayed far. About a third of the town worked for Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO), the nuclear power plant’s operator, and many of those employees stayed in nearby towns outside the evacuation zone to continue to work. The plant, after all, has been good to them. For the first 10 years that Fukushima Daiichi was in operation, the town received about $3.2 million per year from the government and TEPCO, according to Suzuki. After that, subsidies dropped to about $1.5 million per year, which the town will continue to receive until the plant is finally shut down.

Like other nuclear towns in Japan, the power company also built pet projects for the region in exchange for hosting the plant, including J-Village, the sports complex that the company donated to Fukushima prefecture in 1997. Pink signs posted around Okuma tout the TEPCO soccer team, Mareeze, which used to call J-Village home. After the quake, TEPCO took J-Village over as a base to manage the meltdown in three of the plant’s reactors. In the fall, the soccer players had been replaced by over 3,000 workers passing through the complex each day on their way to work at the beleaguered plant.

(MORE: Nuked: A Year After Fukushima, Nuclear Power Is Down — and Carbon Is Up)

After last March’s 9.0-magnitude earthquake rocked the plant and sent a series of seven waves — including one as high as 50 ft. (15 m) — crashing into its reactors, containment of the crisis has not come as far as many would have hoped. The government has declared that the facility is stable and in a state of cold shutdown, meaning that the water inside the reactors is below boiling and therefore not at risk of overheating, and that reactors are no longer emitting dangerous levels of radiation into the atmosphere. But the large amounts of water still being poured into the reactors to keep their melted fuel cool is creating huge amounts of waste water that has leaked in over two dozen locations in the plant since the end of January. Even though it’s been a year, Nakano says, “it still isn’t over. I can’t go home.”

Okuma’s city government has been temporarily relocated to the mountain town of Aizuwakamatsu, about two hours from the city. About 3,000 residents have also settled there together in temporary housing or apartments. On Sunday, Okuma residents gathered in a hall in Aizuwakamatsu to mark the one-year anniversary together. At 2:46 p.m., watching the national ceremony on a large televised screen, they bowed their heads for a moment of silence.

Taki Tochizawa, 53, went all the way from Yokohama, where she is living with her daughter, to observe this moment with her hometown. Tochizawa was working for TEPCO when the earthquake and tsunami struck, and spent the first night in a shelter on the facility’s site. Despite the fact that she’s had to leave her home because of the plant, she decided to stay with TEPCO and work for the utility’s Tokyo headquarters. “This was an exceptional accident,” she says. “But I want to contribute to the effort to make things right.” When asked if she plans to go back to Okuma when it’s safe, she doesn’t hesitate. “Yes.”

— With reporting by Ken Daimaru

Mahr is a correspondent at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @kristamahr.

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