Japan town near stricken nuclear plant lifts evacuation order

This photo taken on July 16, 2015 shows a vehicle and houses damaged by the March 11, 2011 tsunami still untouched after four years, in the village of Tomioka north of Naraha in Fukushima prefecture. TOSHIFUMI KITAMURA/AFP/Getty Images

NARAHA, Japan – The Japanese town of Naraha on Saturday lifted a 2011 evacuation order that sent all its 7,400 residents away after the nearby Fukushima nuclear plant was crippled by a tsunami and spread contamination.

Naraha was the first among seven municipalities forced to empty entirely due to radiation contamination following the massive earthquake and tsunami that sent the reactors into meltdown.

The government says radiation levels in town have fallen to levels deemed safe following decontamination efforts, and overnight lifted the 4-year-old evacuation order.

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The town represents a test case, as most residents remain cautious amid lingering health concerns and a lack of infrastructure. Only about 100 of the nearly 2,600 households have returned since a trial period begun in April.

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Naraha Mayor Yukiei Matsumoto said that Saturday marked an important milestone.

“Our clock started moving again,” Matsumoto said during a ceremony held at a children’s park.

“The lifting of the evacuation order is one key step, but this is just a start.”

He said that fear of radiation and nuclear safety was still present, and the town had a long way ahead for recovery.

For instance, the town will be without a medical clinic until October, and a new prefectural hospital won’t be ready until February next year.

A grocery store started free delivery services in July, and a shopping centre will open next year. Still, many residents, especially those who don’t drive, face limited options for their daily necessities.

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Residents are given personal dosimeters to check their own check radiation levels. To accommodate their concerns, the town is also running 24-hour monitoring at a water filtration plant, testing tap water for radioactive materials.

Last year, the government lifted evacuation orders for parts of two nearby towns.

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