An evacuation order imposed due to high radiation levels was lifted Thursday in part of a town hosting the Fukushima nuclear power plant, allowing residents to return home permanently for the first time since the March 2011 nuclear disaster.
Restrictions in a "difficult-to-return" zone in Okuma were lifted at 9 a.m., making it the first of the two municipalities that host Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings Inc.'s Fukushima Daiichi plant in northeastern Japan to do so.
The district of about 8.6-square kilometers including the area around JR Ono Station was redesignated as a reconstruction and revitalization base following decontamination work to reduce radiation levels, enabling residents to return.
Okuma's entire population of about 11,500 people was forced to evacuate after the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami triggered meltdowns at the nuclear plant that made the area uninhabitable.
The town's emergency broadcast heralded the end of evacuation orders, and a ceremony to mark the start of patrols by the prefectural police and local firefighters was held in front of the train station.
"This is a major reconstruction milestone, but it will take time to get close to the lively town this was. We're finally at the starting line," Okuma Mayor Jun Yoshida said at the event.
While the newly reopened area is formerly home to about 60 percent of the population, with 5,888 registered residents in 2,233 households, only 49 people from 18 households had been staying overnight from December as they prepared for a full return.
The town government aims to have restored the population to 2,600 in five years.
Even more than a decade after the disaster, a zone totaling about 337 square km across seven Fukushima municipalities remains off-limits due to high levels of radiation, with much of the area expected to remain uninhabitable far into the future.
As of April 2022, some 21,000 people are registered residents inside the zone.
A southwestern part of Okuma that was subject in April 2019 to a lifting of evacuation orders for areas with low radiation has seen around 400 people return.
With Thursday's removal of restrictions, Okuma has become the second Fukushima Prefecture municipality to allow people to return to an area designated a difficult-to-return zone, after a similar evacuation order for part of the village of Katsurao was lifted on June 12.
An evacuation order for the reconstruction and revitalization base in Futaba, another town hosting the nuclear plant, is expected to be lifted in July or later, while the three other municipalities of Tomioka, Namie and Iitate where residents are not allowed to return are expected to see restrictions lifted around spring 2023.
For areas other than those classed as reconstruction and revitalization bases, the government intends to have all people who want to move back returned within the 2020s, but no specific timeline for lifting restrictions has been given.