By Mari Yamaguchi
TOKYO (AP) — Japan’s 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 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.
Unrestricted access, however, is only being allowed to a 2.4 square-kilometer (less than 1 square-mile) area near the main Futaba train station, 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.
“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% 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 Kazo City, north of Tokyo, after long bus trips, various stopovers and stays in shelters at an athletic arena and an abandoned high school. The town’s government reopened in a makeshift office in another Fukushima town of Iwaki.
Even after radiation levels declined to safe levels, the region’s farming and fishing are hurt by lingering concerns among consumers and retailers. The nuclear plant is being decommission in a process that will take decades and it is building temporary storage for massive amounts of debris and soil from ongoing decontamination efforts.