FUKUSHIMA – The radiation evacuation area in Fukushima Prefecture will shrink to 30 percent of its initial size by April 1, six years after the March 2011 meltdowns at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant.
Of the 11 municipalities within the originally designated evacuation area, five have seen evacuation orders fully or partially lifted since April 2014.
Four others will follow on March 31 and April 1, rolling back the evacuation zone by 70 percent since the disaster.
Close to 20,000 registered residents in the five municipalities are now allowed to return home, but only 13.5 percent have opted to do so.
Persistent concerns about radiation exposure and slow infrastructure restoration are the main reasons that evacuees have not moved back, according to surveys.
In Naraha, where evacuation orders were completely lifted in September 2015, only 781 of 7,276 residents have returned. Most are elderly.
“I want to return because it’s my hometown, but I worry whether commercial facilities and medical institutions can continue operations in a town without young people,” said a housewife in her 60s who has evacuated to Iwaki, about 35 km to the south.
According to surveys by the Reconstruction Agency, the proportion of those who have stayed away from their hometowns as of last November stood at 31.1 percent for the town of Kawamata, 28.3 percent for the village of Katsurao and 26.1 percent for the city of Minamisoma.
Many in Minamisoma, the towns of Namie and Tomioka, and the village of Kawauchi cited a lack of shops, public transportation and other services essential to everyday life as reasons for not returning to their hometowns.
The proportion of people who cited concerns over medical services topped 40 percent each in those municipalities.
In Minamisoma, 54.8 percent expressed safety concerns over nuclear power and 40.7 percent noted worries about radiation.
The central and local governments have worked hard to lure back former and new residents through facility and infrastructure construction.
Tomioka, where the evacuation order will be lifted for most of the town on April 1, plans to open a temporary emergency hospital at a cost of ¥2.4 billion.
The municipal government also provides financial support and consulting services to businesses, while working on an “Innovation Coast” project to attract new industries, such as renewable energy and robotics, to the town.
“If people find it difficult to secure living standards they have at their current temporary homes back in their original hometowns, they won’t be able to return to their homes anytime soon,” said Ryusuke Takaki, an associate professor at Iwaki Meisei University.