Photo/IllutrationA worker reopens a section of National Route 114 that runs through a "difficult-to-return" zone in Namie, Fukushima Prefecture, on Sept. 20. (Yosuke Fukudome)

  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion

NAMIE, Fukushima Prefecture--Motorists lined up early in the morning on Sept. 20 in front of a barrier on National Route 114 here, anticipating an event they had waited nearly six-and-a-half years to see.

And then it happened at 6 a.m. The barrier was removed, and a 27-kilometer section was finally reopened to the public, giving evacuated residents direct access to the eastern part of Namie, a town that lies just north of the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.

Hisashi Suzuki, an 85-year-old Namie resident who now lives in Nihonmatsu, an inland city in Fukushima Prefecture, used the section to check on his home and family grave.

“Until now, we had to arrange for a thoroughfare pass beforehand, and we sometimes had to wait at checkpoints,” Suzuki said. “This is much more convenient.”

National Route 114, one of main arteries that connects the center of the prefecture with the Pacific coast, runs through much of Namie.

The 27-km section is still within the “difficult-to-return” zone because of high radiation levels, meaning the evacuees can visit their homes in the zone but not return on a permanent basis.

Houses along the road in the no-go zone are now covered in weeds and tangled in vines.

Access to the road section is limited to automobiles. Bicycles, motorcycles and pedestrians are not allowed to enter.

But with the road now reopened, municipalities in the area are hoping for an increasing flow in people, including evacuees visiting their homes and workers involved in reconstruction projects.

All 21,000 or so residents of Namie were ordered to evacuate the town after the nuclear disaster unfolded in March 2011. Many of those living on the coast fled west on National Route 114.

The route was closed in April 2011 because it lies within a 20-km radius of the nuclear plant.

Residents seeking to visit eastern Namie needed to obtain permission from the town government or had to take a cumbersome detour.

The evacuation order was lifted in March this year for the eastern part of the town, which was less contaminated because of the wind direction at the time of the triple meltdown at the plant.

Much of the mountainous western part of Namie is still designated as a difficult-to-return zone.

After receiving requests from the public and municipalities, authorities conditionally lifted the travel ban on the road to allow for convenient access from central Fukushima to eastern Namie.

The central government has set up barriers at 88 intersections on Route 114 to prevent thieves and other unapproved people from using side roads.

In August, a survey showed the radiation dosage on the surface of Route 114 was a maximum 5.53 microsieverts per hour, more than 20 times higher than the threshold level of 0.23 microsievert per hour that many municipalities consider would require decontamination work.

(This article was written by Kenji Izawa and Osamu Uchiyama.)