Photo/IllutrationConstruction work continues in the Ogawara district of Okuma, Fukushima Prefecture, for public housing designed for disaster evacuees. (Yosuke Fukudome)

The evacuation order for parts of Okuma, a town in Fukushima Prefecture where the crippled nuclear power plant is located, has been lifted.

More than eight years after the unprecedented disaster started unfolding at Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, some of the town’s residents can now return home. For the devastated town along the Pacific coast, the measure marks a first step toward regeneration.

The central government and the local administration should make tenacious efforts to improve the living environment in the town so that all residents of Okuma can start living there again if they wish to.

For any area affected by the nuclear accident, the process of reconstruction is inevitably long and grueling.

There are nearly 400 registered residents in the areas of the town for which the evacuation order has been lifted, or about 4 percent of the total population of the town. Only a small portion of the residents have actually returned home. Most of the townsfolk still have to continue life as refugees.

This small number of townspeople, employees of the municipal government and some 700 employees of the plant operator who have been allowed to live in the town as an exception will have to tackle the formidable challenge of rebuilding the local community.

The local governments of areas where residents have long been forced to live as refugees have been striving to ensure the return of the residents as the key milestone in their plans to reconstruct the local communities.

But it is hard to say that their efforts have produced expected results.

Other towns and villages around Okuma have made little headway, either, in their efforts toward the key policy goal.

The evacuation orders for Namie and Tomioka, two other towns near the stricken nuclear plant, were lifted two years ago. But fewer than 1,000 people currently live in each of the two towns, less than 10 percent of the population before the accident.

In surveys of evacuees from the towns, about half of the respondents said they would never return to their old communities.

Many Fukushima evacuees have built the foundation for a new life in the places where they have settled down. The towns and villages they have fled are still suffering from serious shortages of facilities vital for daily life, such as medical institutions and retail stores. Concerns about the ongoing process of decommissioning the melted reactors as well as about radiation levels are also discouraging residents from returning.

The central government and the local administrations concerned should review their reconstruction efforts so far to identify elements that are not in tune with the reality of affected communities.

A lot of taxpayer money has been spent on projects to build new public facilities and nurture new local industries. But it seems that not enough has been done to achieve the most important policy goal: helping local residents rebuild their shattered livelihoods.

Municipal governments in areas contaminated by the meltdowns have been seeking to reconstruct the communities under their own plans. But degrees of progress in their efforts vary widely and challenges confronting the areas are diverse.

It is probably time to take a fresh, hard look at the grim realities of the local communities and lay out a new, viable vision for the future of all the affected areas to ensure more effective policy responses to the situation.

There are clearly limits to what individual local administrations can do in developing medical and commercial facilities, securing necessary manpower to meet the local demand for nursing care services and creating jobs.

Broad cooperation among affected areas is vital for tackling these challenges.

Regenerating battered local communities requires support from such private-sector actors as nonprofit organizations and experts. It is also important to make efforts to encourage workers who have come to live in the areas for jobs related to reactor decommissioning or reconstruction work to settle in the communities.

The municipal administrations involved and the Fukushima prefectural government need to figure out a workable strategy for maintaining local communities even if their populations remain small.

What is crucial for this undertaking is incorporating the diverse lifestyles and values among the residents into the strategy.

Many refugees say they do not intend to return to where they once lived, at least for the time being, but want to maintain their ties with the local communities. Some refugees regularly travel between where they live now and their previous communities.

To be really effective, the plan to regenerate the communities needs to be designed to provide support to all refugees whether they intend to return, remain at their current places or migrate to new communities so as to get as many people as possible involved in the process.

--The Asahi Shimbun, April 29