Small areas near the Fukushima nuclear plant reopen and few return

Evacuation orders have been lifted in small parts of Tomioka, a town southwest of the wrecked Fukushima nuclear power plant, just in time for the region’s popular cherry blossom season.

Evacuation orders were lifted in small parts of a Japanese town southwest of the wrecked Fukushima nuclear power plant on Saturday, just in time for the region’s famous cherry blossom season, and Prime Minister Fumio Kishida joined a ceremony to mark the reopening.

The area of ​​about 4 square kilometers (1.5 sq mi) where entry restrictions have been lifted is part of Tomioka City, most of which has already reopened since the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami that led to the triple meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.

Former residents and visitors celebrated the recent reopening as they strolled along a street known as the “Cherry Blossom Tunnel”.

Koichi Ono, 75, has moved back into the neighborhood where he grew up and lived his whole life until he was forced to evacuate. He told NHK TV, “After 12 years, I can finally return to my life here. Disaster struck when I was at the beginning of my retirement, so I started over.”

Ono, who learned to dye indigo and vegetables during the evacuation, wants to open a workshop as a meeting place for people. “I hope more people come and visit.”

At the ceremony, Kishida vowed to continue working to reopen all restricted areas.

“Lifting evacuation is by no means an end goal, but it is the beginning of recovery,” Kishida said.

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The 2011 disaster caused massive amounts of radiation to leak out of the plant, and more than 160,000 residents were forced to evacuate from all over Fukushima, including about 30,000 who still cannot return home.

Tomioka is one of 12 nearby cities that have been fully or partially designated as no-go areas. The two sections in Tomioka that reopened for the first time in 12 years represent one-fifth of the hardest-hit exclusion zone and have been selected by the government along with several other sites in the area for massive decontamination.

But jobs, daily necessities, and infrastructure remain inadequate, making it difficult for young people to return, and families with young children worrying about possible radioactive effects.

In Tomioka’s newly reopened Yonomori and Usugi districts, just over 50 of the roughly 2,500 registered residents are reported to have returned or expressed their intention to return to live. Only about 10% of the town’s pre-disaster population of 16,000 have returned since large areas of Tomioka reopened in 2017.

City surveys show that the majority of former residents say they decided not to return because they had already found jobs, education and relationships elsewhere.

The evacuation order was lifted in several sections of another hard-hit town, Namie, northwest of Masnaa, on Friday. The reopened area represents only about 20% of the city.

“I have mixed feelings because there are many residents who are still unable to return or have no idea when they can return,” Nami Mayor Iku Yoshida said at the lifting of the evacuation ceremony on Friday.

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