Kazunori Iwayama, a former resident of Katsurao village, located about 40 kilometers (24 miles) from the Fukushima Daiichi plant, said, “It feels like we have finally reached the starting line and we can focus on getting back to normal.”
On March 11, 2011, a magnitude 9.0 earthquake hit the country’s coast, triggering a tsunami that caused a nuclear meltdown at the power plant and a major release of radioactive material. It is the world’s worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl in 1986.
On Sunday, Iwayama observed that a door blocking access to his home in Katsurao’s Noyuki district was reopened at 8 a.m. 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 declined to be identified as is customary in Japan. . Most of those who have returned since 2016 are elderly.
Some households, however, are still waiting for their sections of the village to be decontaminated, according to the official.
Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said this month the opening would be the first time residents would be allowed to live again in Katsurao’s Noyuki district, dubbed the “hard to return” area, an area with high levels of radiation up to 50 millisieverts.
International safety watchdogs recommend that annual radiation doses be kept below 20 millisieverts, the equivalent of two full body CT scans.
The Japanese government has concluded that radiation levels have 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.
As of March 2020, only 2.4% of Fukushima prefecture remained off-limits to residents, with even parts of this area accessible for short visits, according to Japan’s environment ministry.
But there is still work to be done.
The Katsurao village official said about 337 square kilometers of land in seven municipalities in Fukushima are considered “difficult to return” areas. Of these, only 27 square kilometers in six of the same municipalities are specified reconstruction zones.
“It means more work is needed and more families are waiting for the areas they lived in to be decontaminated and restored to normal,” he said.
Later this month, restrictions are expected to be partially lifted on Futaba and neighboring Okuma — towns home to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant — and a similar easing is expected in three other municipalities in 2023, the official said. He added that a timetable for areas outside the reconstruction bases has not been decided.
“This is an important step,” Hiroshi Shinoki, the mayor of Katsurao village, told reporters on Sunday. “It is our job to try to bring things back as much as possible to where they were 11 years ago.”
Shinoki said he wanted to revitalize local agriculture – a key industry in the area – to entice residents to return.
“It feels like people have forgotten about Fukushima, but we are still recovering,” said Iwayama, a resident. “Our rice, fruits and vegetables are normal…we would like people to know that these products are safe,” he said.