More than a decade after Japan’s worst nuclear disaster, the city that is home to the disused Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant finally lifted its evacuation order on Tuesday, allowing former residents to return home.
The city of Futaba, previously considered forbidden, is the last of 11 districts to lift its evacuation order, a spokesperson for the city’s municipal office told CNN.
On March 11, 2011, a magnitude 9.0 earthquake hit the east coast of Japan, triggering a tsunami that caused a nuclear meltdown at the power plant and a large release of radioactive material. It is the world’s worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl in 1986.
More than 300,000 people living near the nuclear power plant were forced to temporarily evacuate; thousands more did so voluntarily. Once bustling communities have been turned into ghost towns.
In the years that followed, large-scale clean-up and decontamination operations allowed some residents who once lived in the former exclusion zone to return.
Futaba is home to the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) complex and a train station. Public facilities, such as the recently reopened municipal office, are expected to resume operations next Monday.
Photos from the city show empty shops, houses and temples, many with external damage such as collapsed roofs and shattered 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 about 7,100 inhabitants. At the end of July, more than 5,500 people remained registered as residents, according to the spokesperson for the municipal office.
Residents have been allowed to enter Futaba’s northeast area – but not live there – since March 2020, when experts said radiation levels did not exceed 20 millisieverts per year. This level is equivalent to two full-body CT scans and international safety watchdogs recommend that this is an individual’s annual radiation exposure limit.
Authorities have begun preparing for the city’s reopening this year; in January they launched a program allowing former residents to return temporarily, but only 85 people from 52 households participated, the Futaba official said. Photos from March also show workers tearing down collapsed structures and preparing to rebuild them.
It’s unclear, however, how many people will return – and how long it will take for the city to recover.
More than 80% of the municipality is designated as a “hard to return” area still experiencing high levels of radiation, the spokesperson said. And a survey last August found that 60.5% of residents had decided not to return – far exceeding the 11.3% who wanted to return.
Futaba has no official timeline on when other areas of the city will be fully decontaminated.
But the spokesperson expressed hope for the city’s future, saying Futaba aims to increase its population to 2,000 by 2030.
“The evacuation order has now been lifted, but we cannot give a concrete figure on how many people will return,” the spokesperson said. “Of course, we’d like people to come back and support their ability to do this as best we can.”
If other Japanese cities affected by the 2011 nuclear disaster are any indication, Futaba has a long way to go. Even places that lifted evacuation orders several years ago have continued to face challenges.
For example, the village of Katsurao, which is 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 decontamination efforts, a 2020 survey by Kwansei Gakuin University found that 65% of evacuees no longer wanted to return to Fukushima Prefecture – 46% feared residual contamination and 45% had settled elsewhere.