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5 years after Fukushima meltdowns, off-limits zone in Iitate languishes

The road to the Nagadoro district remains barricaded in this photo taken in the Fukushima Prefecture village of Iitate. (Mainichi)

To date, the government has avoided providing any outlook for decontamination of areas designated as "difficult-to-return" zones in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster. And it has not given residents any idea of when they could return to those areas. But now, nearly five years after the meltdowns at the Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant, officials are starting to consider the issue, and it is expected that guidelines will be presented from around this summer. Many evacuees have, however, already begun new lives in different parts of Japan, and it is feared that changing zone designations could drive a wedge between residents over whether to return home.

    In the highland Abukuma region of eastern Fukushima Prefecture sit several settlements that have fallen silent. While most of the village of Iitate lies more than 30 kilometers away from the Fukushima No. 1 plant, the whole village was placed under an evacuation order because radioactive materials drifted northwest from the nuclear plant. In July 2012, when evacuated areas were re-designated, the Nagadoro district in the south of the village -- originally home to about 270 people -- was labeled a difficult-to-return zone, where radiation was not expected to fall below a government-set level for allowing residents to return even six years after the meltdowns. The district was the only one of 20 in the area to be barricaded off.

    While decontamination proceeded in other areas in preparation for residents' return, the Nagadoro district languished. In December 2012, the Ministry of the Environment's Fukushima Office for Environmental Restoration held a briefing in the prefectural capital, and when a resident asked about decontamination of the Nagadoro district, the head of the office at the time responded, "We will conduct full-scale decontamination, though we can't say when." A year later, the ministry's guidelines for decontamination were revised, and the Nagadoro district was included as a place where decontamination was to be quickly considered. But under subsequent government policy, decontamination of difficult-to-return zones was limited to bases for town development -- and the Nagadoro district was left out.

    In November 2014, three years and eight months after the outbreak of the disaster, Iitate Mayor Norio Kanno, who was aiming for a return of all residents, held a meeting with central government officials. At a briefing, a resident of the Nagadoro district stated, "If everyone wants it, then we could change the designation from a difficult-to-return zone to a residence restriction zone (with a lower level of radiation), and decontamination work could go ahead." But participants failed to reach agreement. Yoshitomo Shigihara, chief of the Nagadoro district, expressed firm resistance, saying, "Why do we have to bow our heads to the government at this stage?"

    A survey conducted by the Reconstruction Agency in fiscal 2014 found that 29.4 percent of Iitate residents wanted to return to the village, while 26.5 percent had decided not to. Restricted to the Nagadoro district, however, just 13 percent of residents said they wanted to return, while 50.7 percent said they would not go back. With no clear outlook from the government, 60 percent of residents are said to have moved into new places outside the village.

    One 66-year-old living in an apartment rented for Iitate villagers in the Fukushima Prefecture city of Date commented, "We have no option but to decide to buy land in the places to which we've evacuated and live there." At the same, he expressed concern about fading ties to other villagers.

    "If I shift my address, then I'll no longer be a resident of Iitate. Up until now residents have somehow managed to stay connected, but we'll all be split up," he reflected.

    Some residents worry that if the Nagadoro district is delisted as a difficult-to-return zone and the evacuation order over the village is lifted, then it will no longer be eligible for the special measures afforded to such areas. Compensation for psychological damage to residents of the district has already been paid in a lump sum, and building sites and structures are regarded as write-offs, so even if the current designation is lifted, the amount of compensation is unlikely to change. Still, the government provides additional measures, such as medical fee exemptions, and in other areas where evacuation orders have already been lifted, the government has cut off support to households earning over a certain amount.

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