(NAMIE, Japan) — Two years since taking over at Ukedo Elementary School in the town of Namie, the 54-year-old school principal Michie Niikawa 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’s structure still stands along Namie’s waterfront, inside the government mandated nuclear exclusion zone.
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 there are some hot spots that are still four times the legal limit for nuclear workers in the United States. The 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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