Japan opens part of last town off-limits since Fukushima nuclear disaster

The government on Wednesday opened part of the last town that had been off-limits due to radiation since the Fukushima nuclear disaster nine years ago, in a symbolic move to show the region’s recovery ahead of the Tokyo Olympics.

The entire population of 7,000 was forced to evacuate Futaba after three reactors melted down due to damage at the town’s nuclear plant caused by a magnitude 9. 0 quake and tsunami on March 11, 2011.

The partial lifting of the entry ban comes weeks before the Olympic torch starts from another town in Fukushima. The torch could also arrive in Futaba, about 4 kilometers (2.4 miles) from the wrecked nuclear plant.

The town saw the first lifting of the evacuation order issued after the nuclear disaster. The lifting was also the first for a “difficult-to-return” zone with relatively high radiation levels.

Unrestricted access, however, is only being allowed to an area in the northeastern part of Futaba, or 4 percent of the town’s total area, as well as difficult-to-return zones around Futaba Station on East Japan Railway Co.’s Joban Line, which will reopen later this month to reconnect it with the rest of the region for the first time since the accident. The vast majority of Futaba is restricted to those who get permission for a day visit.

The three reactor meltdowns at the town’s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant spewed massive amounts of radiation that contaminated the surrounding area and at its peak, forced more than 160,000 people to flee.

The gate at a checkpoint was opened at midnight Tuesday, and Futaba officials placed a signboard at their new town office.

“I’m overwhelmed with emotion as we finally bring part of our town operations back to our home town,” said Futaba Mayor Shiro Izawa. “I pledge to steadily push forward our recovery and reconstruction.”

Town officials say they hope to see Futaba’s former residents return, but prospects are grim because of lingering concern about radiation. Many residents also found new jobs and ties to communities after evacuating, and only about 10 percent say they plan to return.

Futaba’s registered residents already has decreased by 1,000 from its pre-disaster population of 7,000. Many evacuees ended up in the city of Kazo, Saitama Prefecture. The town’s government reopened in a makeshift office in another Fukushima town of Iwaki.

Following Futaba, the evacuation orders will also be partially lifted for the town of Okuma at midnight on Wednesday and for the town of Tomioka at 6 a.m. on March 10. The three towns are among the seven municipalities where difficult-to-return zones were set after the nuclear accident.

Even after radiation levels declined to safe levels, the region’s farming and fishing industries continue to suffer due to lingering concerns among consumers and retailers. The nuclear plant is being decommissioned in a process that will take decades and it is building temporary storage for massive amounts of debris and soil from ongoing decontamination efforts.

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