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Japanese Town Hit Hard by Natural and Nuclear Disaster Imagines Renewable Future

March 11, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Special correspondent Emily Taguchi reports from Minamisoma, Japan, a town aching for a comeback after an earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown. When the whole region lost its faith in nuclear power, some residents looked to the possibility of rebuilding industry by utilizing renewable energy sources.

GWEN IFILL: Finally tonight: A Japanese town aims for a comeback two years after the earthquake, the tsunami, and the nuclear meltdown at the Fukushima reactor.

Our story comes from special correspondent Emily Taguchi, a graduate of the School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley, one of our reporting partners.

EMILY TAGUCHI: It’s been two years since the meltdowns at the Daiichi nuclear power plant. The city of Minamisoma is celebrating the Nomaoi festival, showcasing their heritage as horsemen and warriors.

About a third of the city is still uninhabitable. But, on this day, residents who fled the city return, standing shoulder to shoulder with former neighbors to honor their history.

MAYOR KATSUNOBU SAKURAI, Minamisoma, Japan: I’m Mayor Katsunobu Sakurai of Minamisoma. This year’s Nomaoi festival, in the hopes of recovery for our residents affected by the nuclear crisis, is being held per the custom.

EMILY TAGUCHI: At 20 miles north of the Daiichi plant, Minamisoma was cut off from the rest of the world two years ago by radioactive plumes. Not even aid trucks would come near. Mayor Sakurai uploaded a plea for help on YouTube.

KATSUNOBU SAKURAI: The banks are closed. The people are literally drying up as if they’re under starvation tactics.

EMILY TAGUCHI: Eiju Hangai, a Tokyo-based businessman born and raised in Minamisoma, felt a particular responsibility to help. He’d spent 32 years working for TEPCO, the utility that operated the stricken nuclear power plant. He’d wanted to work at the utility since he was a little boy.

EIJU HANGAI, Businessman: My grandfather took me to the construction site of the Fukushima Daiichi reactor one. That was where Japan’s energy was going to be made with nuclear power for the first time. That left a powerful impression on me.

EMILY TAGUCHI: But now the crying need of his hometown was also leaving a powerful impression. So he arranged for supplies to go to a bakery that Mrs. Chisaku Ishida kept open after the earthquake. People needed the traditional funeral cakes to give proper burials to their loved ones.

EIJU HANGAI: Giving out supplies to people who’d come to buy the sweets was the fastest way to get them to people in need. But then Mrs. Ishida said, we’re thankful for the supplies, but we’re going to need many, many years to rebuild. We have to do something for the kids who have their futures ahead of them. Hangai-san, please think of something for the kids.

EMILY TAGUCHI: The baker’s mandate became a personal mission for Hangai. His faith in nuclear, indeed the whole region’s, had been shattered by the disaster. He listened when the mayor announced an initiative to buy coastal land from former residents and lease it to renewable energy companies to transform the region to solar.

KATSUNOBU SAKURAI: Whether it’s nuclear, thermal, or hydro, electricity is electricity. Once it’s produced, people have no choice but to use it in our lives today. So, selling electricity is a means to revive the industry we lost.

EMILY TAGUCHI: To bring together solar and the baker’s plea to help the kids, Hangai worked to set up a partnership between Toshiba, which makes solar panels, and KidZania, the operator of a theme park where kids experience real-life jobs.

The result would be a solar power company in the city that not only generates electricity, but lets kids experiment with working in a renewable energy plant.

WOMAN: We would prepare a solar power generation system for kids. They’d have to figure out the best angle, direction, and how to place the panels to generate the most electricity.

EIJU HANGAI: So for me to answer Mrs. Ishida’s homework, I thought, OK, couldn’t we give the kids the experience of working in Minamisoma to support their growth?

EMILY TAGUCHI: Hangai’s solar company became one of the first to sign on to the mayor’s plan. Radiation levels here have dropped sharply. They are now lower than average background levels in the U.S., and the company is gearing up to open for business this month.

For Hangai, it’s just the beginning of repaying for all those years he spent at TEPCO.

EIJU HANGAI: The fact that those words of Mrs. Ishida echoed so heavily for me is because I had a sense of guilt and the need to make amends for the reconstruction of my hometown, which will take many years from now, and for the children who will shoulder that burden. This, in some sense, is my life’s work.

EMILY TAGUCHI: Mayor Sakurai tries to imagine a better future.

KATSUNOBU SAKURAI: In our long history, it’s only a moment in time that we had nuclear power, 40 years. But it can destroy history itself. But as long as we don’t lose our dreams, I think this town will come back in some form.

EMILY TAGUCHI: It’s a big dream. The city of Minamisoma set a goal to produce all of the electricity it needs using only renewable sources by 2030.