Evacuation order to be lifted in part of Futaba, residency allowed from Aug. 30

The Fukushima Prefecture town of Futaba, the only municipality where no residents have been permitted to return in the wake of the 2011 nuclear accident at Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings Inc.'s Fukushima Daiichi plant, will see part of the town reopened to residency beginning on Aug. 30 after a lifting of the central government's evacuation order on the stroke of midnight. The national, prefectural and municipal governments agreed at a meeting in Futaba on July 14 to terminate the evacuation order for the town's Specified Reconstruction and Revitalization Base Area located inside the so-called difficult-to-return zone. The accord will make it possible for people to reside in Futaba for the first time since the Great East Japan Earthquake and ensuing nuclear disaster some 11 years and five months ago, raising hopes that reconstruction will accelerate and homecomings of local residents will become a reality. The Nuclear Emergency Response Headquarters in Tokyo will soon authorize the decision that will officially make Futaba the third municipality to have an evacuation order removed for the reconstruction base area after Katsurao village and Okuma town. "It took a long time, but finally we have set in place an environment for residents to come back," said Futaba Mayor Shiro Izawa. "We hope they will return with peace of mind," he added, pledging his local government will do its best to rebuild the whole town, including areas outside the reconstruction base area. Izawa also referred to the new municipal office building that has been completed on the east side of Futaba Station on the JR Joban Line, saying administrative duties will begin on Sept. 5 following an opening ceremony set for Aug. 27. The town's reconstruction base area encompasses about 555 hectares and includes districts adjacent to Futaba Station. On paper, there are 3,349 people from 1,374 households on a registration basis as of July 1, accounting for about 60% of its registered population. The town now has about 775 hectares of land where evacuation orders have been or will be lifted, or approximately 15% of its total land area. This includes a northeastern area where such an order was lifted in advance in 2020 for non-residential purposes, mostly for industrial reconstruction. ■Living environment improving, but evacuees’ will to return yet to be aroused The municipal government has been striving to develop a new community around Futaba Station while moving ahead with decontamination efforts, and this helped lead to the removal of the evacuation order for the reconstruction base area. The community already has a new town office, essential living infrastructure, a medical clinic and other basics for town planning. And the town has just added some specifics to vitalize the community in its third-phase town-building plan drawn up in June, putting a plan to construct commercial facilities at its center. Efforts to develop and improve the living situation have seen steady progress in preparation for evacuees' permanent homecomings. The town is building 86 new housing units on the west side of the station with occupancy scheduled to begin this fall, for which 53 households have already applied. These units comprise public residences for people who lost homes in the disaster and rental houses for others. An inhabited population target for the entire town is set at somewhere between 1,200 and 1,500, three to four years after the evacuation order is lifted. Challenging issues abound, however, including how to encourage evacuees to return. Only 67 people from 44 households registered as of July 13 under the "preparatory overnight stay" scheme, which was launched in the reconstruction base area in January this year for potential returnees. But those planning to use the scheme continuously until the end of the evacuation order are as few as 11 from seven households. A survey of townspeople conducted in the summer of 2021 by the Reconstruction Agency and other entities found that only around 10% of respondents said they were considering residing in Futaba again. There are 2,002 people from 727 households registered for residency outside the reconstruction base area that is still located inside the difficult-to-return zone. Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has made clear the central government will "strive throughout the 2020s to make it possible for people who are willing to return to go home" to the largely empty area. In this connection, Kishida's administration is scheduled to conduct surveys this summer and thereafter on whether these people are willing to return. Many are demanding decontamination be done throughout the difficult-to-return zone. Futaba's municipal office intends to continue asking the national government to specify a set of measures toward decontamination and a removal of the evacuation order there. LEGEND: Area where evacuation order is lifted Reconstruction base area Outside reconstruction base area Premises of Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant (Translated by Kyodo News)