Nuclear disaster: Fukushima schools frozen in time

At an elementary school in Futaba Town, Fukushima Prefecture, children’s bags and notebooks still lie scattered where they were left after the meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in 2011. The evacuation order for part of the town was lifted in March this year, but no one has returned to live there.

Nishizaki Ryusuke, 21 and a former student at the Futaba Minami Elementary School, visited it last month for the first time since the accident. It is located just three kilometers from the nuclear plant. The sight of everything frozen in time brought back vivid memories.

Ties severed

Nishizaki, then a fifth-grader, was in his homeroom when the earthquake that precipitated the crisis struck. He fled with only the clothes he was wearing. Since that day, he has been living as an evacuee, moving with his family from one place to another within Fukushima Prefecture and in neighboring Niigata. His ties with his home and neighbors have been severed.

“ I had no doubt that I would spend my life in the town,” says Nishizaki. “But the earthquake and the nuclear accident changed everything all of a sudden.”

This classroom at Futaba Minami Elementary School has been untouched since the accident at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.

Yoshino Takamitsu is on the town’s education board and is in charge of preserving cultural assets. He has been keeping records of the school buildings there. “The impact of the nuclear accident is due largely to the radiation it released,” he says. “But it is invisible, so it’s hard to convey what it has done. We believe our mission is to make materials related to the accident.”

Financial factor

Local people sat down with architecture experts in October to begin discussing the preservation of the area’s elementary and junior high schools. But the cost of the exercise soon became clear.

The neighboring town of Namie has decided to demolish five of its nine schools. Left unattended for almost a decade, they have grown dilapidated. The evacuation order was lifted for some parts of the town three years ago, but only 1,500 of almost 17,000 registered residents returned, most of them elderly.

The town projected that renovating them would cost 900 million yen, or about 8.6 million dollars, per school. In addition, it would require an estimated 10 million yen, or about 95,000 dollars, a year in maintenance costs.

Yoshida Katsunori, an official at Namie’s education board, says: “It’s extremely important to pursue the ideal of preserving school buildings. But, financially speaking, it might not be realistic.”

Namie Elementary School is to be demolished next year.

Fukaya Naohiro, a Visiting Associate Professor at the Fukushima Future Center For Regional Revitalization, says all efforts should be made to preserve buildings that can serve as reminders of the accident and help us prepare for future disasters.

“When it came to preserving the Atomic Bomb Dome in Hiroshima, it wasn’t just local residents, but people across Japan, who took part in the debate,” says Fukaya. “Each and every one of us should think about what to do with the Fukushima buildings.”

Concrete reminders

Nishizaki says that there are some things that people can understand only when they visit the site and see it for themselves: “We want people to know that children who had been at the schools at the time of the accident couldn’t go back for nine and a half years.”

At the time of writing, just one building in Fukushima Prefecture has been listed to be preserved as a memorial for future generations.