2 Apr 2014

First Fukushima evacuees return home

8:09 am on 2 April 2014

The first evacuees have returned to their homes, three years after the disaster at the Fukushima nuclear power plant in north-eastern Japan.

A couple at a shrine near the stricken nuclear plant on the third anniversary of the disaster.

A couple at a shrine near the stricken nuclear plant on the third anniversary of the disaster. Photo: AFP

About 350 residents have been allowed to return to Miyakoji district in Tamura city, which lies inside the 20km-radius exclusion zone.

Miyakoji, set amid rolling hills and rice paddies, has been off-limits to most residents since March 2011, when the government ordered evacuations after a devastating earthquake and tsunami triggered a triple meltdown at the power plant on the Pacific coast about 20km away.

"The evacuation period was long, but I am happy that we can finally return home," says Tamura mayor Yukei Tomitsuka. "For Tamura and its families, this is a fresh start."

The trickle of returnees highlights both people's desire to return to the forested hamlet and the difficulty of returning to normal.

"Many of our friends and neighbours won't come back," said Kimiko Koyama, 69, speaking on her return to the large farmhouse she had occupied for 50 years, while her husband Toshio, 72, tried to fix a television antenna on the roof.

"There are no jobs. It's inconvenient and young people are scared of radiation. My daughter won't bring our grandsons here because of the radiation."

Cleanup behind schedule

A few cars streamed into the town, where several TV news vans were set up, Reuter reports. Some elderly women sat by the roadside, but there were no children or families in sight outside.

Schools open later this week, but seven children came to the local preschool and four older children were also dropped off, as volunteers from nuclear plant operator Tokyo Electric Power (Tepco) removed ice and snow and levelled the playground.

The 2011 crisis forced more than 160,000 people from towns near the plant to evacuate. About a third still live in temporary housing across the prefecture, their lives on hold as they wait for decontamination to be done.

The cleanup of radioactive fallout around Fukushima is behind schedule and not expected to achieve the long-term radiation reduction goal - 1 millisievert per year - set by the previous administration.

Across Fukushima prefecture, hundreds of workers are still scraping top soil, cutting leaves and branches off trees and hosing down houses to lower radiation levels.