More than 11 years after Japan’s worst nuclear disaster, the government on Sunday lifted evacuation orders in a part of a village previously considered off-limits, allowing residents to move back to their homes.
Kazunori Iwayama, a former resident of Katsurao village, which is about 40 kilometers from the Fukushima Daiichi factory, said: “It feels like we’ve finally reached the starting line and can focus on getting things back to normal.”
On March 11, 2011, an earthquake measuring 9.0 on the Richter scale struck off the coast of the country, triggering a tsunami that caused a meltdown at the power plant and triggered a large release of radioactive material. It was the world’s worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl in 1986.
More than 300,000 people living near the nuclear power plant were forced to temporarily evacuate and thousands more did so voluntarily. Once bustling communities were turned into ghost towns.
In the years since, large-scale clean-up and decontamination operations have allowed some residents who once lived in the former exclusion zone to return.
On Sunday, Iwayama watched as a gate blocking access to his home in Katsurao’s Noyuki neighborhood was reopened at 8 a.m. local time. Evacuation orders for most of the village were lifted in June 2016, allowing registered residents to come and go, said a village official, who declined to be identified as is customary in Japan. Most who have returned since 2016 are seniors.
However, some households are still waiting for their parts of the village to be cleaned up, the official said.
Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said this month’s opening would be the first time residents will be allowed to live again in Katsurao’s Noyuki neighborhood, the “hard to return” zone, an area with radiation levels of up to 50 millisieverts.
International safety watchdogs recommend that annual radiation doses be kept below 20 millisieverts, the equivalent of two whole-body CT scans.
The Japanese government concluded that radiation levels had fallen enough to allow residents to return, although the figure has not been released.
For now, only four of the 30 households said they plan to return to Noyuki district, the village official said.
Before the disaster, the village of Katsurao had about 1,500 inhabitants. Many of those who left have rebuilt their lives elsewhere, the official said.
Others may still be concerned about radiation. Despite the decontamination efforts, a 2020 survey conducted by Kwansei Gakuin University found that 65% of evacuees no longer wanted to return to Fukushima prefecture – 46% feared residual contamination and 45% had settled elsewhere.
As of March 2020, only 2.4% of Fukushima prefecture was off limits to residents, and even parts of that area was accessible for short visits, according to Japan’s Ministry of the Environment.
But there is still more work to be done.
The Katsurao village official said about 337 square kilometers of land in seven Fukushima municipalities are considered “hard to return” zones. Of these, only 27 square kilometers in six of the same municipalities are specified reconstruction zones.
“This means more work is needed and other families are waiting for the areas they used to live in to be decontaminated and restored,” he said.
Later this month, restrictions are expected to be partially lifted for Futaba and neighboring Okuma — cities home to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant — and a similar easing is planned in a further three municipalities by 2023, the official said. He added that there is no timeline yet for areas outside the Reconstruction bases.
“This is a milestone,” Hiroshi Shinoki, the mayor of Katsurao village, told reporters on Sunday. “It’s our duty to try to bring things back as much as possible to how they were 11 years ago.”
Shinoki said he wanted to revive local agriculture — a major industry in the area — to help attract residents.
In recent years, countries have gradually relaxed import bans on products from Fukushima prefecture. In February, Taiwan lifted the ban on food from Fukushima and four other areas.
“It feels like people have forgotten about Fukushima – but we are still recovering,” resident Iwayama said. “Our rice, fruits and vegetables are normal… we want people to know that these products are safe,” he said.