The government has unveiled a plan to lift a nuclear evacuation order for the Fukushima Prefecture city of Minamisoma by the end of April, paving the way for more than 10,000 residents to return to their hometown, though some evacuees remain concerned about radiation levels in the area.
The government's on-site nuclear disaster response headquarters, led by State Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry Yosuke Takagi, revealed the plan on Feb. 19. It will be the first time for the evacuation order for a "restricted residency zone" to be lifted since the onset of the Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant disaster in March 2011. The evacuation order, however, will remain in place for a "difficult-to-return zone" in Minamisoma that is home to a household of two residents.
Minamisoma is now set to become the fourth area to have its evacuation order lifted after the Miyakoji district of the Fukushima Prefecture city of Tamura, the eastern part of the prefectural village of Kawauchi, and the prefectural town of Naraha. Among the four areas, Minamisoma has the largest population subject to the lifting of an evacuation order.
A "restricted residency zone" is an area where residents are essentially prohibited from staying overnight due to high annual radiation doses of over 20 millisieverts but no more than 50 millisieverts. The government introduced the zone when it began realigning evacuation areas in April 2012 under three types of evacuation orders in accordance with radiation levels. The "restricted residency zone" is equivalent to level 2 in the three-tiered classification.
At a meeting of the Minamisoma Municipal Assembly on Feb. 19, the government's on-site headquarters presented documents showing that yearly radiation doses in the city have dropped to 20 millisieverts or less through decontamination efforts, indicating that evacuation orders can be lifted. "Once the conditions are met, we will start preparations to lift the evacuation order by the end of April," an official with the on-site government task force told the meeting. The task force will begin holding briefing sessions for residents on Feb. 20 to seek their understanding.
After the meeting, Minamisoma Mayor Katsunobu Sakurai said, "I will decide whether to accept the central government's plan once the municipal government confirms the completion of decontamination work." Mayor Sakurai suggested that the lifting of the evacuation order may take place sometime after the "Golden Week" holiday period is over in early May as it will take some time to gain residents' understanding regarding the plan.
Evacuation orders will be lifted in what are known as "zones preparing for the lifting of evacuation orders" in the Odaka and Haramachi districts of Minamisoma, which are home to 3,536 households. They will also be lifted in a "restricted residency zone" in the Odaka district, which is home to 126 households. The population of people registered in both zones totaled 11,663 as of the end of September last year.
According to the municipal government, a program allowing residents to stay overnight was introduced in August 2015 as part of preparations for the lifting of the evacuation order, but only 1,600 residents had signed up for the program as of Jan. 27 this year. Among them, about 30 percent -- mainly households of elderly residents -- are believed to have actually stayed over at their homes in Minamisoma. When it comes to the "restricted residency zone," only a few households have thus far stayed overnight in the city -- a clear indication of lingering concerns about radiation levels among evacuees.
As almost five years have passed since the outbreak of the nuclear crisis, many residents have settled down in their evacuation destinations after landing jobs or building new homes. The municipal government presumes that about 90 percent of residents will not return to their hometown for a while even after the evacuation order is lifted.
Meanwhile, the central government is currently making arrangements with local governments to lift the evacuation orders for the "restricted residency zone" and the "zone preparing for the lifting of evacuation orders" simultaneously in the Fukushima Prefecture town of Kawamata and the village of Katsurao sometime in the near future.