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Evacuation order partially lifted for Fukushima plant hosting town, but challenges remain

Ukichi Sato walks his dog near his home in the Ogawara district of the town of Okuma, Fukushima Prefecture, early on April 10, 2019. (Mainichi/Naoki Watanabe)

TOKYO -- The government lifted an evacuation order for part of the town of Okuma, Fukushima Prefecture, at the stroke of 12 a.m. on April 10, some eight years after the entire town was evacuated due to the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station disaster.

The lifting of the evacuation order was the first of its kind for a host town of the nuclear plant, which straddles Okuma and the town of Futaba.

While the move came after radiation levels dropped due to decontamination efforts and a new town hall building was erected in a new location, Okuma still faces a plethora of challenges as many residents are unenthusiastic about returning to their hometown as the basis of their livelihoods has shifted to their evacuation sites.

Nuclear evacuation zones are three-tiered in accordance with their radiation doses: the highly radioactive "difficult-to-return" areas, regions with restricted residency, and areas preparing for the lifting of evacuation orders. On April 10, the evacuation order for the Ogawara district, which lies in the restricted residency zone, and the Chuyashiki district, which falls under an area preparing for the lifting of evacuation orders, was lifted.

While the two districts account for some 40 percent of Okuma's roughly 79-square-kilometer land area, their population -- 367 residents in 138 households registered as of the end of March 2019 -- comprises a mere 3.5 percent of the town's overall population.

As the former town center lies in what is now a difficult-to-return zone, town officials planned on developing a new community hub in the Ogawara district. The town will hold an opening ceremony for the new town hall on April 14 and will commence services there in May. Meanwhile, 50 households are scheduled to move into public housing complexes for disaster victims in June.

However, recovery of local infrastructure has been lagging behind. A temporary commercial facility to be inaugurated in June will accommodate only three stores initially, including a convenience store. A welfare facility and a medical clinic will not open in the area until April 2020 and the spring of 2021, respectively.

In a questionnaire conducted by the town in January, to which 36 percent of the surveyed residents responded, only 14.3 percent said they wanted to "return" to their hometown in the near or distant future, while 55 percent said they would not return. Among those who are unwilling to return, the most common reason, at 68.3 percent, was because they have already built their livelihoods in their evacuation destinations.

On the morning of April 10, residents were seen coming back to their homes in the area. One of them, Ukichi Sato, 79, said, "From today, I can live here proudly," as he walked his pet dog named "Fuku."

(Japanese original by Seiichi Yuasa, Aizuwakamatsu Local Bureau, and Naoki Watanabe, Photo Group)

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