A road remains blocked Thursday evening in the town of Tomioka near the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant. An evacuation order for Tomioka residents will be lifted Saturday.
Evacuation orders lifted for three more Fukushima areas but residents slow to return
FUKUSHIMA – Japan on Friday lifted its evacuation orders for the village of Iitate and two other areas that had been enforced due to the nuclear disaster at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power station.
The move came six years after Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings Inc.’s power station suffered meltdowns after the huge earthquake and tsunami in March 2011, triggering evacuation orders in many places in Fukushima Prefecture, including Iitate and the other two areas.
Residents of Iitate, the town of Namie and the Yamakiya district in the town of Kawamata, totaling some 22,100 at the end of February, can now return home, except in a handful of places included in no-go zones where radiation levels are still too high.
With the evacuation order set to be removed for the town of Tomioka on Saturday, Okuma and Futaba, the host towns of the crippled power station, will be the only Fukushima municipalities without an area where an evacuation order has been lifted.
Meanwhile, municipalities where evacuation orders have been removed have their own problems: a slow return of residents.
The central government and affected municipalities have channeled their efforts into improving commercial facilities, transportation systems and other infrastructure, hoping to attract residents, old and new.
In Tomioka, a ¥2.4 billion emergency hospital will be created, reflecting strong calls for medical institutions.
The return of residents has remained slow, however, with many returnees being elderly. In the five municipalities whose evacuation orders had already been lifted, only 14.5 percent of residents came back.
In Iitate, Namie and Kawamata’s Yamakiya district, the share of residents who said they want to go back to their hometowns in joint surveys mainly by the Reconstruction Agency stood at 33.5 percent, 13.4 percent and 43.9 percent, respectively.
The central government will begin work to revive areas in the no-go zones spanning seven municipalities. According to the government’s plan, each of the seven will have a reconstruction base for work to decontaminate local areas tainted with radioactive substances from the Tepco power station and build infrastructure.
Decontamination costs will be borne by the central government. It aims to lift evacuation orders in the no-go zones within about five years.
“The government is resolved to fully lift the evacuation orders (in the no-go zones), even if it takes a long time,” Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has recently said.
But a concrete path to the goal is not in sight.
People pray in silence in front of a memorial for the victims of the 2011 disaster in Namie, Fukushima Prefecture, early on March 31. The tsunami-struck Ukedo district remains empty in the background.
Most Fukushima evacuation orders end save for no-go zones
More than six years after the nuclear accident, evacuation orders for areas in two towns and one village in Fukushima Prefecture were lifted after midnight on March 30, allowing residents to finally return home.
The number of residents affected tops 32,000, including the population of Tomioka, where the same order is scheduled to be lifted on April 1.
That will result in the government’s evacuation order issued right after the March 2011 accident at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant being lifted for almost all affected areas, apart from highly contaminated areas designated as a “difficult-to-return zone.”
However, less than 20 percent of people had returned to areas where the order had already been withdrawn earlier, and not many residents from areas close to the nuclear plants are willing to go back.
On March 31, the order for parts of Namie and Kawamata towns and Iitate village was lifted.
In the coastal Ukedo district in Namie, about seven kilometers north of the No. 1 plant, about 30 people, including Namie residents and the town mayor, gathered at a memorial for the 182 victims from the town before the dawn, hours after the lifting of the evacuation order.
Just after 5:30 a.m., they held a minute of silent prayer.
“I would like to achieve complete recovery until the ban (on the difficult-to-return zone in the town) is lifted entirely for Namie, while cooperating with the residents,” said Namie Mayor Tamotsu Baba.
In Namie, Iitate and Tomioka, the entire population had been living outside their homeland.
After the nuclear crisis unfolded, spawned by the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami, the government issued evacuation orders to 11 municipalities, for the total population of about 81,000.
Since then, one by one, the authority had lifted bans on areas that met certain safety criteria–estimated annual radiation doses totaling 20 millisieverts or less, and infrastructure and lifelines were reconstructed.
In Okuma and Futaba, where the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant is sited, the evacuation order remains in effect for all residents.
From now on, the government’s priority will shift to encouraging evacuees’ return and assisting them on becoming financially independent, while withdrawing in stages their compensation and accommodation payments.
In the government’s fiscal 2017 budget, a fund of 23.6 billion yen ($212 million) was set aside for restoring the local health-care system and facilities in the area impacted by the 2011 Great East Japan earthquake and tsunami, and nuclear crisis.
Restoring the essential services for living is part of the plan to encourage evacuees to return to their homes.