National

Evacuees from parts of town hosting crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant finally free to return

Kyodo

Japan lifted its mandatory evacuation order over parts of the town of Okuma, which hosts the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, on Wednesday as planned, citing the lower radiation levels achieved through decontamination work and progress in infrastructure development.

The order had been in place since 2011, when a deadly earthquake and tsunami in the country’s northeast triggered one of the world’s worst nuclear disasters, forcing Okuma’s roughly 10,000 residents to flee.

However, even after the lifting of the order, around 60 percent of the town’s land area where the level of radiation is the highest will remain closed.

Both the government and the town hope that the change will accelerate the revitalization of the local community, but repopulation is expected to be slow, partly due to the few commercial and medical services in the area.

In districts of the town where the evacuation order has been lifted, only 367 people, or around 3.5 percent of the original population of 10,341, had registered as residents as of late March.

Day visits had been possible, but few seem to have been preparing to return to their previous homes for good. As of Monday, only 21 households, accounting for 48 people, had registered to stay overnight.

Okuma’s Ogawara district was chosen as the central area in the town’s reconstruction efforts, and its new town hall is expected to open in May with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe scheduled to attend its opening ceremony on Sunday.

During his trip to Fukushima Prefecture, Abe may also visit the nuclear power plant for the first time since September 2013 to check the progress of its decommissioning, according to a government official.

In Okuma, public housing for victims of the natural disasters will be ready to welcome residents in June. But the original town center remains a no-go zone.

The central government plans to make Okuma inhabitable by 2022, including tearing down buildings and decontaminating the whole town.

Still, the temporary storage facility for the prefecture’s waste will remain there for the foreseeable future.

Futaba, the other town that hosts the nuclear plant operated by Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings Inc., remains a no-go zone but the government is aiming to lift an evacuation order there by the spring of 2020, in an area that has the lowest radiation level.

Seven cities and towns in the prefecture still have areas with no-go zones. The earliest a complete evacuation order is expected to be lifted is 2022.