Photo/IllutrationUkichi Sato goes for a walk with his dog, Fuku, near his home in Okuma, Fukushima Prefecture, on April 10 after the evacuation order was partially lifted for the town, which co-hosts the crippled Fukushima No.1 nuclear power plant. (Yosuke Fukudome)

  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion

The government lifted its evacuation order for parts of Okuma in Fukushima Prefecture on April 10, a first for a town co-hosting the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant since the 2011 triple meltdown.

Residents are now free to return to the Ogawara and Chuyashiki districts in the town's western area as radiation levels have dropped significantly.

Even though life there will not be like what it was before, the announcement of the lifting of the evacuation order at midnight was a landmark moment for Ukichi Sato, 79.

Sato, like other residents, had been allowed to return to his home in Ogawara ahead of the April 10 announcement to prepare for the arrival of family members.

“It feels great even though my life in my hometown will not change immediately," he said.

Sato's wife still resides in temporary housing in the prefectural city of Aizuwakamatsu.

He planted tulips in his garden to add color to his surroundings, an attempt to roll out the welcome mat for his neighbors.

Prior to the announcement, the entire town had been designated as a difficult-to-return zone due to high radiation levels.

Ogawara and Chuyashiki account for about 40 percent of the town's acreage and roughly 4 percent of the population, with 367 people of 138 households were still registered as residents as of the end of March.

Okuma had a population of 11,500 before the Fukushima nuclear disaster.

The town government, which has operated from several municipalities in the prefecture, plans to hold a ceremony on April 14 to mark the completion of a new town hall building in the Ogawara district.

Construction of 50 or so buildings, such as stores, lodgings and public housing for disaster victims, is also under way in the vicinity of the new town hall building.

About 700 employees of plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co. have lived in the Ogawara district since 2016, where a company dormitory was built as a special case.

The Okuma town government envisages that about 500 residents will return eventually to the two districts. It is also hoping to attract 200 new residents, in addition to the 700 TEPCO employees living in the dorm.

Despite the partial lifting of the evacuation order, most Okuma residents, numbering about 10,000, will remain displaced for a few more years as they came from districts still off-limits.

Cleanup work has been under way in the town's central area to create a special hub for rebuilding efforts.

Although that area is still designated as a difficult-to-return zone, town officials expect the evacuation order to be lifted in spring 2022.

As the nuclear crisis unfolded following the earthquake and tsunami disaster in March 2011, evacuation orders were issued for 11 municipalities around the plant.

After the April 10 announcement, Futaba remained the only municipality where the evacuation order is still in place for the entire area under its jurisdiction. Futaba, a town neighboring Okuma, co-hosts the nuclear complex.

The partial lifting of the evacuation order for Okuma reflects the desperate efforts of local officials to ensure the town's survival.

It also mirrors the central government’s intention to underscore the difference between the Fukushima accident and the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, in which residents were forced to leave their communities and never return.

But Okuma still faces enormous challenges.

The longer residents are displaced, the higher the likelihood of them never returning to their home communities.

This is mainly because most evacuees settled in urban areas to make a fresh start rather than waiting for the end of their prolonged evacuation.

On average, 26 percent of former residents return to their hometowns, according to data from nine local governments where evacuation orders have been lifted.

The percentage decreases the closer a municipality is to the nuclear plant and the longer evacuation order remains in place.

But even if more residents choose to return, the demographic composition will likely be significantly lopsided in terms of age and gender.

Senior citizens comprise the majority of those returning.

In Tomioka, a town next to Okuma, two-thirds of the 922 residents are male. This is apparently because most of them are involved in the decommissioning work. The evacuation order for Tomioka was lifted two years ago.

Okuma’s battle to return to normalcy is expected to be a particularly difficult one as an interim facility to store radioactive soil generated in the decontamination operation is situated there.

The polluted soil is supposed to be removed from the prefecture by 2045, but few local governments are likely to accept the waste in their backyards.

In addition, final decommissioning of the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant is still decades away, leaving returnees with the prospect of living side by side with the legacy of the accident for many years to come.

(This article was compiled from reports by Hideyuki Miura, Daiki Ishizuka and Seniro Staff Writer Noriyoshi Otsuki.)