Fukushima School in Limbo, Two Years After Nuclear Disaster

PHOTO: Michie Niikawa struggles to define her role as school principal. Two years since taking over at Ukedo Elementary School in the town of Namie, the 54 year-old has yet to welcome her first class of students, greet teachers, or visit classrooms.

Michie Niikawa struggles to define her role as school principal.

Two years since taking over at Ukedo Elementary School in the town of Namie, the 54-year-old has yet to welcome her first class of students, greet teachers, or visit classrooms.

Most days, she works in a cramped corner on the second floor of a prefabricated structure that houses city hall, 50 miles from the town.

"[The school] exists in name alone," Niikawa, a 34-year veteran teacher says. "I have struggled to find ways to best serve my students."

The school's structure still stands along Namie's waterfront, inside the government mandated nuclear exclusion zone.

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The roof provides a clear view of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant, where nearly 3,000 people still work daily.

But in areas around the school, there are no signs of life. Smashed cars and rusted boats washed up from the tsunami dot the bleak landscape that surrounds Ukedo.

The school itself is a skeleton of the structure Niikawa remembers. Windows are smashed, classrooms cleared out. A graduation sign from March 11, the day the tsunami hit, still hangs above badly cracked floors in the school gym.

Like so many towns inside the 12-mile no-go zone, Namie was struck by a tragic trifecta: earthquake, tsunami, and radiation leak.

Ukedo Elementary's 92 students evacuated thinking they would return once the massive waves receded. But two years on, radiation fallout from the nuclear disaster has left them in perpetual limbo.

Town officials say exposure levels have dropped 40 percent in two years, but in some hot spots they are still four times the legal limit for nuclear workers in the United States.

Niikawa, who began her tenure as principal five months after the disasters struck, has been tasked with keeping the "spirit" of Ukedo alive, while the central and local governments come up with a plan to make the area livable again.

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It is no simple task -- considering radiation fears have pushed many of her students out of the region, hours away.

"I had no idea how to get involved at first," she says, describing her first months on the job as "trial and error." "I had to come up with some kind of lesson plan to move forward."

The dilemma is one shared by other principals in Fukushima.

While many schools inside the exclusion zone relocated together, the Board of Education says eight of them were divided like Ukedo, leaving the principals with no place to go.

Niikawa began by arranging visits with every one of Ukedo's students, whom she had never met. She drove to their schools with handmade cards to introduce herself, and to ask for advice on how she could help.

She set up a website to facilitate communication between teachers. During Christmas, she organized a reunion among parents and students -- an event that involved a game of ring toss and hot potato, a tug of war between dads, and a cook-off for moms.

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Another reunion is scheduled for July, but Niikawa pauses when asked about her long-term plans.

Town officials have imposed a 10-year deadline to bring Namie back, but red tape has already stalled the nuclear decontamination process, delaying reconstruction.

Across Fukushima Prefecture, more than 8,000 students have moved outside the region, concerned about potential health risks, and frustrated by the slow pace of recovery, according to the board of education.

Niikawa is aware that declining enrollment could lead to the consolidation of schools and the loss of Ukedo Elementary school.

"If we just say good luck, you're on your own, they will never come back," she says. "If we continue to remind them of their hometown, maybe they will consider returning to Namie, one day."

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