More than a decade after Japan’s worst nuclear disaster, the town that hosts the disabled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant finally lifted its evacuation order on Tuesday, allowing former residents to come home.
The town of Futaba, previously deemed off-limits, is the last of 11 districts to lift its evacuation order, a spokesman for the town’s municipal office told CNN.
On March 11, 2011, a 9.0-magnitude earthquake struck off Japan’s east coast, triggering a tsunami that caused a nuclear meltdown at the power plant and a major release of radioactive material. It was the world’s worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl in 1986.
Futaba is home to the Tokyo Electric Power Company complex (TEPCO) and a railway station. Public facilities, such as the newly reopened municipal town office, are scheduled to restart operations next Monday.
Photos from the town show empty shops, houses and temples, many of which bear external damage such as collapsed roofs and broken windows. The streets are largely empty. Abandoned cars and trucks sit in a field, covered in grime and rust.
Before the nuclear disaster, Futaba had a population of about 7,100. As of late July, more than 5,500 people remain registered as residents, according to the municipal office spokesman.
Residents have been allowed to enter the northeastern area of Futaba – but not live there – since March 2020, when experts said radiation levels did not exceed 20 millisieverts per year. That level is equivalent to two full-body CT scans and international safety watchdogs recommend it should be the limit of an individual’s annual exposure to radiation.
Authorities began preparing for the town’s reopening this year; in January, they launched a program allowing former residents to return temporarily, but only 85 people from 52 households took part, the Futaba official said. Photos from March also show workers tearing down collapsed structures and preparing to rebuild them.
It remains unclear, however, how many people will return – and how long the town will take to recover.
More than 80% of the municipality is designated as a “difficult-to-return” zone still experiencing high levels of radiation, the spokesman said. And a survey conducted last August found that 60.5% of residents had decided not to return – far exceeding the 11.3% who wanted to come back.
Futaba has no official timeline on when other areas of the town will be fully decontaminated.
But the spokesman expressed hope for the town’s future, saying Futaba aims to increase its population to 2,000 by 2030.
“The evacuation order has lifted now, but we can’t give a concrete number on how many people will come back,” the spokesman said. “Of course, we’d like people to come back and support their ability to do so as best as we can.”
If other Japanese towns affected by the 2011 nuclear disaster are any indication, Futaba has a long road ahead. Even places that lifted evacuation orders several years ago have continued to face challenges.
For instance, Katsurao village, which lies about 40 kilometers (24 miles) from the plant, reopened to residents in 2016, but some households are still waiting for their sections of the village to be decontaminated.
Others may still have concerns about radiation. Despite the decontamination efforts, a 2020 survey by Kwansei Gakuin University found 65% of evacuees no longer wanted to return to Fukushima prefecture – 46% feared residual contamination and 45% had settled elsewhere.
CNN’s Kathleen Benoza contributed reporting.