For the first time since the triple meltdown at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant three years ago, the government is lifting an evacuation order in a restricted area, allowing residents to return to their homes.
Residents of an eastern strip of the Miyakoji district of Tamura, Fukushima Prefecture, are being allowed to return as of April 1, the first day of the 2014 fiscal year, government officials said at a meeting Feb. 23. The area lies within 20 kilometers west of where the accident occurred.
One reason the government is rushing to lift evacuation orders for communities affected by the Fukushima nuclear disaster is cost. Tokyo Electric Power Co., which is being lent money by the government’s Nuclear Damage Liability Facilitation Fund to compensate evacuees, is required to continue compensation one year after an evacuation order is lifted. Lifting the orders will hasten the end of those payments.
According to the industry ministry, 1.5 trillion yen ($14.63 billion) has been paid in compensation to evacuees from 11 municipalities as of February.
In addition, decontamination costs will snowball if the government tries to achieve its long-term goal of lowering annual airborne radiation doses to 1 millisievert or less in areas where evacuation orders are in place.
A Reconstruction Agency official said it is unclear whether the long-term goal can be achieved even if the government continues decontamination work.
Prior to the Feb. 23 meeting, a senior Reconstruction Agency official asked Kazuyoshi Akaba, a senior vice industry minister, to explain the government’s policy to evacuees “even if it means rising to your full height and standing firm before residents.”
Akaba and Tamura Mayor Yukei Tomitsuka were tasked with explaining the new policy to the residents.
During a previous meeting in October, Tomitsuka had proposed lifting the evacuation order by November, but residents complained, saying too much contamination remained.
Some evacuees requested additional decontamination work because the radiation levels remained above 1 millisievert in some areas. The government promised to deal with residents who are still worried about high radiation levels on a case-by-case basis.
“If this abnormal situation continues, residents will lose attachment to their hometown and the community will collapse,” Tomitsuka has said.
Takumi Nemoto, minister for reconstruction, has described fiscal 2014 as “the year in which Fukushima will make big moves,” voicing hope evacuees will begin returning to their homes.
The government’s determination to lift the evacuation order for the Miyakoji district in the spring is an attempt to get the entire ball rolling.
Six other municipalities are considering lifting evacuation orders over the coming two years or so. That will affect nearly 30,000 evacuees who will have to decide whether they will return or not.
One strategy the government has proposed to facilitate the return to the Miyakoji district is to open key prefectural roads and convenience stores as a way to improve living conditions there.
“If we fail to gain an understanding after doing this much, it will be impossible to lift the evacuation order,” a senior Reconstruction Agency official said.
About 3,000 people left the Miyakoji district in the eastern part of Tamura after the March 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami triggered the Fukushima nuclear disaster.
The eastern tip of the Miyakoji district, which lies within a 20-kilometer radius of the Fukushima No. 1 plant, is designated as a zone that is being prepared for the lifting of the evacuation order. It was home to 360 people at the time of the accident.
In June, government-led decontamination work was completed in this strip. Since the summer, residents have been allowed to stay in their homes for more than a month to prepare for their eventual permanent return.
In a 2012 survey, 6.7 percent of Tamura residents said they wanted to return to their homes and 34.5 percent said they wanted to return if some conditions were met.
In the five of six other municipalities, 20 to 40 percent of residents responded in a similar manner. Three of the municipalities are considering lifting evacuation orders as early as this spring.
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