Evacuation ends for part of Futaba, all Fukushima municipalities now livable after more than 11 years

Photo: Shortly after midnight on Aug. 29, people go through a door set up to symbolize the reopening of the area in front of JR Futaba station following the removal of an evacuation order.

The central government lifted an evacuation order in the Specified Reconstruction and Revitalization Base Area inside a "difficult-to-return" zone in the town of Futaba on Aug. 30, making it possible for people to live in parts or the whole of all municipalities in Fukushima Prefecture for the first time in 11 years and five months since the 2011 nuclear accident at Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings Inc.'s Fukushima Daiichi plant. Futaba had been the only remaining municipality where an evacuation order was in place in its entirety. A commemorative event was held in the town, beginning at the stroke of midnight on Aug. 29. In front of JR Futaba station on East Japan Railway Co.'s (JR East) Joban Line, a "welcome back project" was staged by volunteer townspeople, with some 2,000 candles lighting the area. Participants did a countdown to midnight and as the clock struck midnight, some of them said, "I'm home" while others answered, "Welcome back." A mock door set up in front of the station was opened to the public, allowing people to go through it in a symbolic action. "At long last, we are able to make a fresh start toward reconstruction in a visible manner," said Kazuharu Fukuda, 51, who organized the event. "Let's just see us work together to build a new town." Futaba Mayor Shiro Izawa told reporters he hopes "this opportunity being given today will move us forward step by step." Futaba was the third municipality after Katsurao village and Okuma town to have seen an evacuation order lifted in their Specified Reconstruction and Revitalization Base Areas. The latest decision covered Futaba's central district measuring about 555 hectares, including the JR East station and its vicinity. The size of Futaba's livable area now amounts to around 775 hectares, or about 15 % of its total land area. This includes the town's northeastern industrial reconstruction base and some other areas where evacuation was terminated in advance in 2020 for non-residential purposes. On paper, the town's population as of July 31 stood at 5,574. About 60 %, or 3,574, of them have their residency registered. The whole of Futaba was evacuated in 2011 following the nuclear disaster. The town moved its municipal office first to Kawamata, another Fukushima Prefecture town, and then to Saitama Prefecture. Futaba was the sole municipality hit by the nuclear disaster to relocate outside Fukushima Prefecture. In 2013, Futaba moved its administrative functions back to the prefecture, locating its town office in Iwaki city. Prior to the elimination of the evacuation order this time, Futaba opened a new office on Aug. 27, with municipal duties set to start there on Sept. 5. As for Specified Reconstruction and Revitalization Base Areas elsewhere in the prefecture, the towns of Namie and Tomioka and Iitate village are seeking to have evacuation orders lifted next spring. Measures vital to promote homecomings, immigration, settlement From now on, the prefectural and municipal governments are required to promote measures to encourage and support evacuees' homecomings as well as immigration and settlement. As evacuations have been protracted, evacuees who are considering returning to Futaba and living there permanently account for only around 10 %, according to a municipal survey. In the lead-up to the lifting of the evacuation order, 85 people from 52 households registered for preparatory lodging in the town as of July 31. Of them, however, only 13 people from eight households continued to register until the order's removal. For Futaba, how to maintain its relationship with evacuated townspeople has thus proven to be a challenging issue. The town will be engaged in a development project centering around JR Futaba station with a plan to construct commercial facilities. Public housing for disaster victims and other potential residents is already under construction on the west side of the station. An initial batch of 25 homes is set for occupancy in October ahead of full residency. A clinic and some other facilities are to be built in an adjacent area. Outside the specified reconstruction area, 2,000 people had their residency registered as of July 31. The national government aims to see the homecomings of all of those who desire to return during the 2020s. But many are demanding strongly that decontamination work be done for the entire "difficult-to-return" zone as a first step. The municipal office will continue urging the central government to come up with specific measures aimed at cleaning up the whole of such areas and terminating all the remaining evacuation orders. Townspeople's efforts prove crucial: Fukushima governor Fukushima Gov. Masao Uchibori expressed his respect for the efforts people of Futaba have been making toward reconstructing the town at a regular press conference on Aug. 29, on the eve of the evacuation order's removal. "This is a result of everyone in this town working together for reconstruction and revival of their hometown while cherishing a strong desire to make it exist by all means," Uchibori said as he reiterated his determination to tackle the problems associated with the reconstruction process. "We must take each and every measure in a clearer way so that we can clarify which direction we will be going (in the reconstruction process), and this includes areas outside the base area." (Translated by Kyodo News)