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Workers open a gate in Katsurao, Japan, as evacuation orders are lifted for part of the village, near the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, allowing residents to move back into their homes more than a decade on from the March 2011 disaster. Photo: Kyodo

Japan’s Fukushima village residents allowed to return 11 years after nuclear disaster - but do they want to?

  • Restrictions lifted for some residents in Fukushima prefecture, more than decade after the nuclear disaster, but many people are still worried
  • It’s first time restrictions removed to allow people to live again in ‘difficult-to-return’ zone; government says radiation levels have been reduced
Residents from part of Katsurao village in Fukushima Prefecture can move back into their homes again more than a decade on from the March 2011 nuclear disaster that followed an earthquake and tsunami, after evacuation orders were lifted on Sunday morning.

It is the first time restrictions have been removed to allow residents to live again in part of the “difficult-to-return” zone once expected to stay closed far into the future due to high radiation exposure.

The government decided on June 3 to end restrictions for the 0.95-square-kilometre area after determining decontamination had reduced radiation levels, and that infrastructure was in place to support habitation.

But while the government has poured funds into decontamination and infrastructure development for zones known as “specified reconstruction and revitalisation bases” which are earmarked for reopening, the intervening 11 years have depressed residents’ desire to return to their homes.

South Korean environmental activists during a protest in Seoul against Japan’s plan to discharge Fukushima radioactive water into the sea, as they mark World Oceans Day on June 8. Photo: AFP

In the part of Katsurao’s Noyuki district where restrictions have been lifted, just four of the 30 households comprising 82 people intend to return, according to the local government.

Amid rainy weather, an official from the central government’s nuclear emergency response headquarters declared the area reopened at 8am. After the gate blocking the road was opened, a police car and other vehicles quickly began patrols of the area.

Katsurao Mayor Hiroshi Shinoki indicated he was considering bringing back residents through revitalising local agriculture, the area’s key industry.

“This is one milestone,” he said. “It is our duty to work to try to bring things back as much as we can to how they were 11 years ago.”


Japan assesses damage after magnitude 7.4 earthquake strikes near Fukushima

Japan assesses damage after magnitude 7.4 earthquake strikes near Fukushima

But Fujio Hanzawa, a 69-year-old resident who was quick to revisit his home, spoke carefully when asked about the reopening. “I’m glad I can return without limits, but I’m still 80 per cent concerned. There are issues outstanding, like the unfinished decontamination of the mountain.”

Around 337 square kilometres of land in seven Fukushima municipalities remain subject to the difficult-to-return zone classification. Of those, a total of just 27 square kilometres in six of the same municipalities comprise specified reconstruction and revitalisation base zones.

Apart from Katsurao, the towns of Futaba and Okuma – the latter being home to the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant – are expected to see restrictions partially lifted sometime this month or later, with another three municipalities scheduled for next spring. A specific timetable for areas outside the specified reconstruction bases has not been reached.

Katsurao was made entirely off-limits following the nearby nuclear power plant’s meltdown in the aftermath of the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami.