Evacuated town prepares for residents’ return

by Jun Hongo

Staff Writer

The town of Hirono resumed services Thursday at City Hall, the first of nine evacuated municipal offices in Fukushima Prefecture to reopen since the March 11 disaster struck and nuclear crisis started.

Located 23 km south of the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant, Hirono’s municipal office moved its operations to the nearby city of Iwaki in April after the government placed the town within the emergency evacuation preparation zone.

Under the designation, residents were told to be ready to evacuate at a moment’s notice. But the municipality recommended that everyone evacuate, after all public schools and nurseries closed last March.

Hirono maintained its evacuation recommendation even after the central government lifted the designation in September.

The town is scheduled to lift the recommendation in April and ask that residents return home.

The area within a 20-km radius of the plant is still designated a no-go zone by the central government.

“This is the first step” toward recovery from the disaster, Hirono Mayor Motohoshi Yamada told town officials Thursday.

Delivering a speech in an office still littered with stacks of cardboard boxes, Yamada vowed to have the town ready in time to receive returning residents.

Only a few hundred of the town’s 5,300 former residents have so far returned, according to Hirono. The town, however, is seeing more activity thanks to the location of J-Village, the off-site center for workers at the crippled nuclear power plant, on the north edge of the area.

Yamada acknowledged the difficulty of ridding the area of radiation decontamination, a necessity for getting residents to return home.

“At one point the population of the town fell into the double digits,” an official said.

The town is planning to decontaminate its schools in time for the students to return for the autumn semester. Meanwhile, every house is scheduled to be cleaned by the end of 2012.

“I feel a certain amount of relief, but also a sense of anxiety,” Yamada told reporters of his return to the town hall Thursday.

“It remains unclear how much time it will take us to remove all their fears . . . but I know that we must get the job started,” he said.

A public Geiger counter near the town hall read 0.42 microsieverts per hour Thursday morning, a level several times higher than seen in Tokyo.

Hirono has already declared it will not plant rice this year for fear the soil is contaminated with high levels of radioactive cesium. Most of the town’s stores remain closed, even on major streets.

Kawauchi, a nearby village, is scheduled to reopen its municipal hall on April 1.