TOKYO — Several former residents of Futaba, Japan’s only uninhabited city still recovering from the effects of radiation from nuclear power plant meltdowns in 2011, have returned to live for the first time since the earthquake and tsunami drove them out.
Authorities declared most other areas safe and reopened them after extensive decontamination efforts over the past decade.
In Futaba, only 15 of the 7,000 inhabitants who lived there before the tragedy expressed their desire to return this week on a trial basis. A full-fledged reopening of the city on Japan’s northeast coast is scheduled for June.
“This is the first time in 10 years and 10 months that I have seen running water coming out,” a beaming Yuji Onuma told NHK television. He said he was looking forward to cooking fried noodles and eating with his wife and children when they begin their life together in the city later this month.
He was there briefly alone on Friday with several other people who in recent years have been gradually cleaning their homes during permitted daytime visits.
Another returnee, Yoichi Yatsuta, said he hoped city officials would continue reconstruction to restore life as much as possible to encourage young people to return.
Their city was hardest hit when the nearby Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant collapsed following the 9.0 magnitude earthquake which sent tsunami waves onto the coast, killing some 18,000 people, including more than 50 in Futaba.
Most of the remaining population was forced to evacuate to another city in Fukushima Prefecture due to radiation and contamination in the area, which has since been largely deserted.
Upon moving, many former residents have found new jobs and community connections and say they have no interest in returning.
A small section near Futaba Station, which has been cleaned up and rebuilt, opened for daytime tours in March last year, just before the Olympic Torch Relay ahead of the Tokyo Summer Games.
Futaba Mayor Shiro Izawa said the trial return “is a first step towards rebuilding Futaba City. I’m sure many people in the city have been waiting for this day for a long time.”
There are no medical services or enough shops. For now, residents have to go out of town to find a hospital or buy food and other necessities.
Izawa promised to provide strong support before part of the city’s no-go zones are officially lifted in June.
The prospects for a bigger comeback are bleak.
Futaba’s registered residents have already shrunk by nearly 2,000 from its pre-disaster population. Even after radiation levels fell to safe levels, the region’s agriculture and fisheries continue to suffer from lingering concerns from consumers and retailers.
The nuclear plant is being dismantled in a process that will take decades. The government is also building temporary storage for massive amounts of debris and soil from ongoing decontamination efforts.