Town abandoned after Fukushima disaster allows residents to return

Town abandoned after Fukushima disaster allows first residents to return eight years after nuclear meltdown – but more than half its population refuses to come back

  • Town of Okuma was one of several evacuated following the meltdown at the Fukushima Daatchi power plant 
  • Evacuation zone covering 40 per cent of the town was lifted for the first time in eight years on Wednesday 
  • Thousands of people are now able to return home, but half of town’s 10,000 residents say they don’t want to 

Eight years after a meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear power plant forced thousands of people to flee their homes, residents of one town have finally been allowed to return home. 

Authorities have lifted the evacuation order covering around 40 per cent of the town of Okuma after aggressive decontamination efforts – including removing topsoil and hacking down trees – led to a significant drop in radiation levels.

But more than half of the town’s 10,000 residents say they have decided against going home, as the complicated process of decommissioning the nearby power plant continues.

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    Thousands of residents of the town of Okuma, near the Fukushima nuclear power plant, were allowed to return home for the first time in eight years on Wednesday as a government evacuation zone was partially lifted. Pictured: People take pictures of cherry trees in the area earlier this month

    Aggressive decontamination efforts, including hacking down trees, removing topsoil and washing down homes, means radiation levels in the area have significantly dropped

    But at least half of the town’s 10,000 residents say they have no plans to return home despite the clean-up because the nearby power plant has not been full decommissioned

    New houses have also been constructed to replace those that were badly contaminated with radiation following the meltdown, which was caused by a tsunami

    Evacuees of Okuma, dressed in protective suits, offer prayers for the dead at a shrine located in a part of the town that has not yet been decontaminated

    A picture taken this week shows a central area of Okuma town which has not yet been decontaminated, as residents are allowed back into two nearby districts

    The town of Futaba remains off limits, as well as several other nearby settlements.  

    Opponents of lifting the evacuation orders in long-abandoned communities say the government is promoting residents’ return to showcase safety ahead of the Tokyo Olympics next summer.

    The government has pushed for an aggressive decontamination program by removing topsoil, chopping trees and washing down houses and roads in contaminated areas.

    Experts say the effort only caused the contamination to move from one place to another, creating massive amounts of radioactive waste and the need for its long-term storage.

    The meltdowns at three of Fukushima Dai-ichi’s six reactors caused massive radiation leaks that contaminated the plant’s surroundings, forcing at its peak some 160,000 people to evacuate their homes for areas elsewhere in Fukushima or outside the prefecture.

    Evacuation orders in most of the initial no-go zones have been lifted, but restrictions are still in place in several towns closest to the plant and to its northwest, which were contaminated by radioactive plumes from the plant soon after its meltdowns.

    More than 40,000 people were still unable to return home as of March, including Okuma’s population of 10,000.

    Town officials say the lifting of the evacuation order in the two districts would encourage the area’s recovery.

    The Unit 3 reactor at the Fukushima nuclear power plant, which suffered a meltdown after being hit by a tsunami in 2011, is covered by a metal dome as efforts to decommission it continue

    Houses in the Okawara district of Okuma town, one of two districts where the evacuation order was lifted on Wednesday

    Okuma Town Hall is seen in the foreground while public housing construction continues behind it as Japan allows some of the town’s residents to return home after eight years

    Journalists and engineers wearing protective clothing stand in front of the No. 1 (left) and No.2 (right) reactors at the Fukushima nuclear power plant

    ‘We are finally standing on a starting line of reconstruction,’ Okuma mayor Toshitsuna Watanabe told reporters.

    A new town hall is opening in the Ogawara district in May and 50 new houses and a convenience store is underway. But the town center near a main train station remains closed due to radiation levels still exceeding the annual exposure limit and a hospital won’t be available for two more years, requiring returnees to drive or take a bus to a neighboring town in case of medical needs.

    Anti-nuclear sentiment and concerns about radiation exposures remain high in Japan since the disaster, leaving many people skeptical about the safety declaration by the government and utility operators, as risks of developing cancer and other illnesses from low-dose, long-term radiation exposures are still unknown. 

    Critics also say that the annual exposure limit of 20 millisievert, the same as nuclear workers and up from 1 millisievert before the Fukushima meltdowns, is too high.

    Many people are reluctant to return home because of lingering concerns about radiation, and they have adapted to new jobs and homes after more than eight years away.

    Only 367 people, or less than 4 percent of Okuma’s population, registered as residents in the two districts where the order was lifted. A survey last year found only 12.5 percent of former residents wanted to return to their hometown. The government hopes to allow some of Futaba’s 5,980 residents to return next year.

    Okuma is also home to a temporary storage facility for the radioactive waste that came out of the decontamination efforts across Fukushima. A much delayed facility is still underway.

    Fukushima plant’s operator, Tokyo Electric Power Co., and government officials plan to start removing the melted fuel in 2021 from one of the three melted reactors, but still know little about its condition inside and have not finalized waste management plans. 

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