Reopening the school “is very, very meaningful,” said Sachiko Araki, the principal of the junior high school. “A town without a school is not really a town.”
The new, $18 million two-story building has shiny blond wood floors, spacious classrooms, two science labs, a library filled with new books and a large basketball gymnasium. A balcony at the back of the building overlooks the sea.
Many emotions fueled the decisions of the families who returned to Naraha. It was always a small town, with just over 8,000 people before the disaster. So far, only one in five former residents has come home.
A bank, post office and medical clinic are now open, but a supermarket is still under construction. Because neighborhoods have stood empty for so long, wild boars sometimes roam the streets.
With thousands of bags of contaminated soil piled high in fields around town and radiation meters posted in parking lots, the memory of the nuclear disaster is never distant.
At the Naraha school, which was being constructed when the disaster hit, workers destroyed a foundation that had just been laid and started over, removing mounds of dirt in an effort to decontaminate the site.
Today, radiation is regularly monitored on the school grounds as well as along routes to the building. The central government, based on recommendations from the International Commission on Radiological Protection, set a maximum exposure of 0.23 microsieverts an hour, a level at which there is no concrete scientific evidence of increased cancer risk. (Microsieverts measure the health effects of low levels of radiation.)
Still, some teachers say they are extra careful. Aya Kitahara, a fifth-grade teacher, said she and her colleagues had decided it was not safe to allow children to collect acorns or pine cones in the neighborhood for art projects, for fear that they would pick up small doses of radiation.
Nearby, a nursery school and day care center was built mostly with money from the nuclear plant operator, Tokyo Electric Power Company, in 2007 and reopened this month. Keiko Hayakawa, the principal, said she was surprised that the city had pushed to bring back children before all bags of contaminated soil had been cleared from town.
“We had to start and keep moving to open this facility as soon as possible,” Ms. Hayakawa said on a morning when 3- and 4- year-olds romped in a large playground, climbing a jungle gym, riding scooters and digging in a sandbox. “Otherwise, there was a fear that people might never come back.”