Japan’s Fukushima city cancels evacuation order 11 years after nuclear disaster

The city of Futaba, previously considered closed to the public, is the latest of 11 districts to lift evacuation orders, a city official told CNN.

On March 11, 2011, a magnitude 9.0 earthquake struck off the east coast of Japan, causing a tsunami that caused a nuclear power plant meltdown and a large release of radioactive materials. It was the worst nuclear disaster in the world since Chernobyl in 1986.

Futaba is home to the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) complex and train station. Public facilities, such as the newly reopened Municipal City Hall, are due to reopen next Monday.

Photographs from the city show empty shops, houses and temples, many with external damage such as collapsed roofs and broken windows. The streets are mostly empty. Abandoned cars and trucks sit in a field covered in mud and rust.

Before the nuclear disaster, about 7,100 people lived in Futaba. More than 5,500 people remain registered as residents as of the end of July, according to a city official.

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Residents have been allowed to enter northeastern Futaba but not live there since March 2020, when radiation levels did not exceed 20 millisieverts a year, experts said. This level is equivalent to two whole-body CT scans, and international safety monitors recommend that it be the limit of a person’s annual exposure.

Authorities have begun preparations for the opening of the city this year; in January they launched a program to allow former residents to temporarily return, but only 85 people from 52 households participated, Futaba’s official said. Photos from March also show workers demolishing collapsed structures and preparing to rebuild them.

However, it remains unclear how many people will return and how long it will take the city to recover.

The decommissioned Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Futaba on August 29, 2022.

More than 80% of the municipality has been designated as a “hard-to-reach” area, where high levels of radiation are still observed, according to a spokesperson. And a survey last August showed that 60.5% of residents chose not to return, far more than the 11.3% who wanted to return.

Futaba has no official timeline for when other areas of the city will be fully decontaminated.

But a spokesperson expressed hope for the city’s future, saying Futaba aims to increase its population to 2,000 by 2030.

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“The evacuation order has now been lifted, but we cannot provide specific numbers on how many people will return,” the spokesman said. “Of course we would like people to come back and support their ability to do it the best they can.”

If a other Japanese cities affected by the 2011 nuclear disaster, Futaba has a long way to go. Even places where evacuation orders were canceled a few years ago continue to face problems.

For example, the village of Katsurao, which is about 40 kilometers (24 miles) from the plant, reopened to residents in 2016, but some households are still waiting for their parts of the village to be decontaminated.

Others may still have concerns about radiation. Despite decontamination efforts, a 2020 study by Kwansei Gakuin University found that 65% of evacuees no longer want to return to Fukushima Prefecture – 46% fear residual pollution, and 45% have settled elsewhere.

Kathleen Benosa of CNN contributed to the story.

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