NAMIE, Japan (Reuters) - Jinichi Abe grins as he watches diggers working earth near his rice fields, knowing they are returning still more fields to productivity after Fukushima nuclear reactors exploded and sprayed the area with radiation over a decade ago.
Even better, Abe knows the rice that he and a cooperative grow will have a steady buyer, and his town of Namie, still struggling to recover from the March 2011 disaster, has a new hope: a venture that turns rice unsellable for consumption due to health worries into low-carbon plastic used by major firms across Japan.
Last November, Tokyo-based firm Biomass Resin opened a factory in Namie to turn locally-grown rice into pellets. The raw materials are reborn as low-carbon plastic cutlery and takeout containers used in chain restaurants, plastic bags at post offices and souvenirs sold at one of Japan's largest international airports.
"Without growing rice, this town can't recover," said Abe, 85, a 13th-generation farmer, who said the rice - unsellable due to rumours - had been used as animal feed, among other uses, in previous years. "Even now, we can't sell it as Fukushima rice.
"So having Biomass come was a huge help. We can grow rice without worries."
Spreading down from the forested slopes of the mountains to the ocean side, parts of Namie lie only 4 km from the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant run by Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco), which provided jobs for many – including Abe’s son and grandson. The plant's chimneys are clearly visible from Ukedo beach, below a primary school gutted by the March 11, 2011 tsunami.
The same wave slammed into the nuclear plant, setting off meltdowns and explosions. Namie residents first evacuated inland on March 12 but then, as radiation levels rose, were ordered out of town altogether with little more than the clothes they wore.
Nobody was allowed back to live until 2017, after decontamination efforts that left tonnes of radioactive soil stored around the town for years, including in the fields across from Abe's. Some 80% of the town's land remains off-limits and not quite 2,000 people live there, compared with 21,000 previously.
There is one major shopping centre, one clinic, two dentists, one combined primary and junior high school - and a dearth of jobs. In better times, there had been a thriving pottery business, and farming, along the coastal plain.
"Fundamentally, we want businesses that will create as many jobs as possible - basically, manufacturing," said town official Satoshi Konno, who admits things are "still tough."
Since 2017, eight companies have come in, including a concrete plant, aquaculture and an EV battery recycler, generating about 200 jobs. Discussions are underway with others and research institutes may bring still more people.
HIT BY FOUR DISASTERS
Biomass Resin, whose tidy factory sits on land originally set aside for another nuclear plant, is one of the newest.
"Namie was hit by four disasters - the quake, the tsunami, the reactor accident and then rumours about radiation danger," said Takemitsu Imazu, president of Biomass Resin Fukushima.
"It's mostly recovered from the quake and tsunami, but the other two are still heavy burdens...By building our factory here, we want to bring jobs and invite people back."
A toasted rice aroma hangs around the factory line, where rice is combined with small plastic beads, heated and kneaded before being extruded in thin rods that are cooled and cut into tiny brown pellets. The pellets, either 50% or 70% rice, are then sent to companies which manufacture plastic goods.
The plastic isn't biodegradable, Imazu said, but using rice cuts the petroleum products involved - and growing more rice in Namie reduces overall atmospheric CO2.
Atomic contamination experts said rice naturally takes up little radioactive cesium. Additional testing has found no rice above strict limits, meaning the plastic is fine too.
"There's no safety issue," said Atsushi Nakao, associate professor at Kyoto Prefectural University. "I really regret the rice isn't consumed due to safety rumours, but I also understand it's hard to completely refute aversions."
Biomass Resin employs 10 people in Namie, including a 20-year-old who returned, and hopes to expand. It currently uses only about 50 tonnes of Namie rice - the rest of the 1,500 tonnes needed is mainly from elsewhere in Fukushima - but will buy more next year from Abe and his cooperative, grown on the freshly-cleared fields.
Abe, whose son will soon retire from Tepco and join him growing rice, is hopeful.
"This is an important thing to keep Namie going, a really good thing for the town," he said.
(Reporting by Elaine Lies; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)