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Residents return to Fukushima as Japan lifts evacuation order

Christian Fernsby |
Japan partially lifted an evacuation order in one of the two hometowns of the tsunami-wrecked Fukushima nuclear plant on Wednesday for the first time since the 2011 disaster.

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Decontamination efforts have lowered radiation levels significantly in the area about 7km southwest of the plant where three reactors had meltdowns due to the damage caused by the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami.

The action allows people to return to about 40 percent of Okuma. The other hometown, Futaba, remains off-limits, as are several other towns nearby.

Many former residents are reluctant to return as the complicated process to safely decommission the plant continues. Opponents of lifting the evacuation orders in long-abandoned communities say the government is promoting residents' return to showcase safety ahead of the Tokyo Olympics next summer.

The government has pushed for an aggressive decontamination programme by removing topsoil, chopping trees and washing down houses and roads in contaminated areas, though experts say the effort only caused the contamination to move from one place to another, creating massive amounts of radioactive waste and the need for its long-term storage.

More than 40,000 people were still unable to return home as of March, including Okuma's population of 10,000.

Town officials say the lifting of the evacuation order in the two districts would encourage the area's recovery.

"We are finally standing on a starting line of reconstruction," Okuma Mayor Toshitsuna Watanabe told reporters.

A new town hall is opening in the Ogawara district in May and 50 new houses and a shop is under way. But the town centre near a main train station remains closed due to radiation levels still exceeding the annual exposure limit.

A hospital won't be available for two more years, requiring returnees to drive or take a bus to a neighbouring town in case of medical needs.

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