• Kyodo

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Mayor Yuko Endo of the village of Kawauchi near the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant called Tuesday for some 2,600 people to return home now that the radiation situation has improved.

Kawauchi is the first local government in what had been part of the evacuation zone to ask its residents to return.

The mayor’s nonbinding request was made in the Fukushima prefectural office.

The residents must decide on their own whether to return home.

Many villagers still worry about radiation levels, thus it is unlikely many will return by the end of March.

“This is the first important step for residents to go back to their hometown. We’d like to keep providing assistance for the village of Kawauchi,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura told a news conference.

He also stressed the importance of accelerating decontamination work in the village.

Kawauchi had a population of 2,990 before the March quake-tsunami disaster that triggered the crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant. Many are now staying in Koriyama, Fukushima Prefecture. Kawauchi’s municipal office was also relocated to Koriyama.

Almost 550 residents are meanwhile staying in 26 prefectures outside Fukushima. About 200 people have remained in the village.

The western parts of the village were designated as an area where people had to be ready to evacuate in case of an emergency, but that designation was lifted in September.

The village launched decontamination efforts in November, planning to lower the radiation level in its western area to an annual exposure of 1 millisievert or less per year by the end of March.

Eastern parts of Kawauchi are within the 20-km no-entry zone around the Fukushima plant.

The municipal office plans to resume its functions and reopen elementary and junior high schools and medical clinics in the village in April.

“I believe we have gained a certain amount of understanding (among village residents) for resuming administrative services and elementary and junior high school lessons in April,” Mayor Endo said.

“Some people were cautious over the timing of returning to the village. But we consider reconstruction of the administrative functions as one of our top priorities,” he said.

Oldest reactors doomed

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Environmental Minister Goshi Hosono said Tuesday it is “impossible” that the government will restart reactors older than 40 years even if they pass inspection.

If Hosono’s pledge is kept, it would mean that two reactors, both located in Fukui Prefecture, will be decommissioned even if they pass ongoing checkups.

They are reactor No. 1 at the Tsuruga nuclear power plant operated by Japan Atomic Power Co. and reactor No. 1 at the Mihama plant operated by KansaiElectric Power Co. They are the only active reactors in Japan older than 40 years.

Currently, 51 of the nation’s 54 reactors, including the two in question, have been halted for inspections after the meltdown crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 plant.

Whether the central government can gain agreements from local host governments in restarting the reactors has been a key issue in national energy and safety policy.

Earlier in the day, the Cabinet approved bills aimed at enhancing nuclear safety regulations in light of the Fukushima crisis, including a plan to effectively place a 40-year limit on the life time of reactors.

The regulations leave the possibility of extending a reactor’s operational life by up to another 20 years, but the wording in the bills has been clarified to make such an extension “extremely difficult” to achieve, according to ruling party members.

The bills are also intended to require utilities to take measures to prevent massive releases of radioactive fallout when an accident occurs, while allowing authorities to order the suspension of reactors if they don’t comply with updated technological standards based on the latest findings.

The bills are expected to be submitted to the Diet during the current session, with the government hoping to launch the new regulatory framework in April at the start of the new fiscal year.

Under the framework, a new nuclear regulatory agency under the Environment Ministry would play a central role in nuclear safety, bringing an end to the current situation in which various organizations, including the science ministry, have a hand in decisions.

The current setup of having the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency under the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, which also has the role of promoting nuclear power, has been criticized for lax government supervision of nuclear facilities, and a slow response to the Fukushima disaster.

The government also plans to create a five-member nuclear safety investigation committee that would oversee the new nuclear agency and carry out investigations when a crisis occurs.

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