Evacuation orders will be lifted in June for the first time in the residential zone considered the most heavily contaminated from 2011 nuclear disaster in Fukushima Prefecture. Residents who fled from the Noyuki district of Katsurao village northwest of the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant will be allowed to restart living there on June 12. The decision followed a meeting between central government officials handling the nuclear accident and Katsurao officials on May 16. The official decision is expected to be announced at a meeting of the government’s nuclear emergency response headquarters led by Prime Minister Fumio Kishida.
Eighty-two people of 30 households who used to live in the district will be eligible to return. The district is about 20 kilometers from the stricken nuclear plant and part of the government-designated “difficult-to-return zone.” Eight people of four families have expressed their intention to return, according to village officials.
More than 11 years have passed since the area was put off-limits by the government. And many evacuees and their families have started new lives elsewhere. Yoshinobu Osawa, a 68-year-old man who lives in public housing with his wife in Miharu, a town about 30 km from the Noyuki district, indicated that they will not return to their original home. His house in the district was dismantled three years ago, and he believes he is too old to rebuild his life from scratch. “The passage of 11 years after the disaster weighs heavily,” he said.
Following the triple meltdown at the plant in March 2011, the government issued evacuation orders for areas where annual radiation doses were estimated to reach 20 millisieverts, including all of Katsurao. The government also designated areas with readings of 50 millisieverts a year in the difficult-to-return zone. Seven municipalities, with a combined pre-disaster population of 22,000, fell in this category, including most of Katsurao as well as Okuma and Futaba, which co-host the nuclear plant.
Barricades were erected to prevent people from entering the difficult-to-return zone. In December 2011, the government prioritized decontamination efforts in districts outside the difficult-to-return zone. It also said restrictions on living in the zone would remain for many years because of the high radiation levels. But in a reversal of the policy, the government in August 2016 announced that it would clean up parts of the zone for a future lifting of the entry ban. A government study showed that radiation levels had dropped naturally in some areas of the zone despite the absence of decontamination work.
In 2016, Katsurao villagers whose homes were located in areas with readings of less than 50 millisieverts a year were allowed to return. However, less than 30 percent have returned, according to the village hall, which is hoping that 80 people will return within the next five years. Hiroshi Shinoki, the village chief, acknowledged the challenge at a news conference on May 16. “We have finally reached the starting line for reconstruction,” he said. “But numerous problems have arisen as time passed by.”
The lifting of the entry ban for specific reconstruction areas in Okuma and Futaba is expected between June and July. Osawa noted that cleanup work has reduced the radiation levels of the Noyuki district to less than 20 millisieverts a year. Still, the figure is 10 times that of the pre-disaster doses. He said he cannot gather mushrooms and edible wild plants like he used to because they are now contaminated.