Residents return to their village 11 years after the Fukushima nuclear tragedy

More than 11 years after Japan’s worst nuclear disaster, the government on Sunday lifted evacuation orders in part of a village previously classified as a restricted area, allowing residents to return home.

Kazunori Iwayama, a former resident of Katsurao village, which is about 40 kilometers (24 miles) from the Fukushima Daiichi plant, said, “It feels like we’ve finally reached the starting line and being able to focus on getting back to normal.”
On March 11, 2011, a magnitude 9.0 earthquake struck the country’s coast, triggering a tsunami that caused a power plant collapse and a large release of radioactive material. It was the worst nuclear disaster in the world 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 recent years, large-scale cleanup and decontamination efforts have allowed some residents who once lived in the former exclusion zone to return. On Sunday, Iwayama witnessed the reopening of a gate blocking access to his home in Katsurao’s Noyuki neighborhood at 8:00 am 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 refused to be identified as is customary in Japan. Most of those who have returned since 2016 are elderly.

However, some households are still waiting for their parts of the village to be decontaminated, the official said. Decontamination work near a primary school in Katsurao, near the tsunami-damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant on December 4, 2011.

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said this month the opening marked the first time residents were allowed to return to live in Katsurao’s Noyuki district, dubbed the “hard to return” area, an area with levels high radiation levels of up to 50 millisieverts. International safety bodies 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 dropped enough for residents to return, although the figure has not been released. So far, only four out of 30 households have said they intend 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 the radiation. Despite decontamination efforts, a 2020 survey conducted by Kwansei Gakuin University found that 65 percent of displaced people no longer wanted to return to Fukushima prefecture: 46 percent feared residual contamination and 45 percent had settled elsewhere.

As of March 2020, only 2.4% of Fukushima prefecture was off limits to residents, and parts of that area were also accessible for short visits, according to the Japanese Ministry of Environment. But there is still a lot to do.
The Katsurao village official said about 337 square kilometers of land in seven townships of Fukushima are considered “difficult to return” areas. 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 lived in to be decontaminated and restored,” she said. By the end of the month, restrictions are expected to be partially lifted for Futaba and nearby Okuma – home to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant – and similar easing is expected in three other municipalities by 2023, the official said. He added that there is still no timeline for areas outside the reconstruction bases. “This is a milestone,” Hiroshi Shinoki, the mayor of Katsurao Village, told reporters on Sunday. “It is our duty to try to bring things back to the way they were 11 years ago as much as possible.”

Shinoki said he wanted to revive local agriculture, an important industry in the area, to attract residents. In recent years, countries have gradually eased import bans on products from Fukushima Prefecture. In February, Taiwan lifted its ban on food from Fukushima and four other regions. “It seems people have forgotten about Fukushima, but we are still recovering,” Iwayama said. “Our rice, vegetables and fruit are normal … we want people to know that these products are safe,” she said.