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Residents return to three locations near the Fukushima exclusion zone after radiation exposure drops to levels Japan considers safe.
KAWAUCHI, Japan — More than a year after the meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi power, several hundred residents forced out by radiation have made a nervous first return to their homes in Kawauchi.
Residents from the village and two other locations near the edge of the 12-mile exclusion zone around the facility were allowed back recently after the government lifted evacuation orders in former "hotspots" where radiation exposure has dropped to levels it considers safe.
As a handful of children were welcomed back to school at an emotional ceremony last month, local officials heralded the first chapter in the village's post-Fukushima history.
"There were times when we never thought we would be able to return and get on with our lives again," Yoshinobu Ishii, head of the local board of education, told parents and children.
"There are only a few of us here, and I know you are missing your friends who are still living in temporary accommodation. These things take time. And remember, the whole of Japan wants us to succeed."
In theory, 16,000 of the more than 100,000 people displaced by the nuclear crisis are able return to their old neighborhoods, although only those whose homes have been decontaminated can stay overnight.
But tens of thousands of others who once lived near the plant may have to wait decades before they can even attempt to rebuild lives put on hold since radiation contaminated their communities in the wake of Japan's triple disaster.
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Kawauchi, whose eastern reaches lie inside the no-go zone, was the first to resume basic services, including reopening the village's office, clinic and schools.
The mayor, Yuko Endo, praised the children for their courage. "You have had a tough time as refugees, but now you can concentrate on the things that matter, like school and home."
The government lifted the evacuation order in line with a new radiation zoning system that allows people in neighborhoods where atmospheric radiation is below 20 millisieverts (mSv) a year — although that is still twenty times the target Japan's authorities have set for contaminated areas.
Residents in areas where the annual reading is between 20 mSv to 50 mSv now have unrestricted access during the day, although they are not permitted to stay overnight; those living in places where exposure exceeds 50 mSv a year will not be allowed to return for at least five years.
The village of Tamura also lifted its evacuation order, as did Minamisoma, where many residents in newly reopened coastal area lost their homes to the tsunami, and gas, water and electricity supplies have yet to be restored.
Endo, who said he was determined not to allow Kawauchi to become another Pripyat — the deserted town near the Chernobyl nuclear power plant — hopes the population will return to around pre-disaster levels in two to three years.
But of the village's population of 2,856, only about 500 have returned so far. Local schools should have had more than 200 pupils on their rolls this spring; instead there are just 30, including the 16 who started classes in April.
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An estimated 75,000 people in eight other towns, cities and villages in or around the 12-mile evacuation zone who face a much longer wait, if they are allowed to return at all.
Last weekend the environment minister, Goshi Hosono, acknowledged that the no-entry order for communities closest to the Fukushima plant could remain in place for years. Earlier, the minister in charge of tsunami reconstruction, Tatsuo Hirano, hinted that a permanent "buffer zone" could be created around the facility due to the persistent threat from radioactive water leaks.
A recent government report forecasts that in some areas — including the towns of Futaba and Okuma, located less than two miles from the power plant — radiation exposure will exceed 100 mSv a year in March 2017. That is the lowest level at which any long-term increase in cancer risk is clearly evident, according to the UN Scientific Committee on the Effects of Radiation.
In 20 years' time, levels in some of those areas will still exceed the 20 mSv limit the government has imposed for returning residents, the report added.
There wasn't a single mention of radiation at Kawauchi community center, where officials and teachers fought back tears to welcome the new intake at the village's nursery, elementary and junior high schools.
"I promised we would wait for you," Toshihiko Takahama, principal of Kawauchi middle school, told his pupils. "Being forced out of your home was really tough for you, but now you're back, starting a new chapter in your lives. Don't worry, your teachers will look after you."
The children's thoughts were with friends who have started new lives elsewhere, or whose parents remain unconvinced by reassurances that radiation in the village does not pose a threat to their long-term health.
"About half of my friends are still living all over the place," said 12-year-old Haruna Endo, who moved back last month. "But I want to enjoy school with those of us who have come back. I'm not at all worried about my health."
Opinion was divided among parents who had decided to move back after more than a year in temporary housing, in some cases hundreds of miles from Fukushima.
"We went to Ehime prefecture [in southwest Japan] and the kids were bullied, mainly because of their accents," said Koji Nishiyama, a local government official and father of four. "I'm relieved that they're finally able to return and start school in their own home. The children are happy too."
Nishiyama said he wasn't worried about radiation levels; areas in front of the village schools measured between 0.114 and 0.16 mSv an hour on the day his children started classes — well below the 0.23 mSv an hour the government considers safe.
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"I'm not concerned," he said. "I was more worried about our children when we were living in temporary accommodation and they couldn't lead normal lives. The radiation levels are really low around here."
But Hirotaka Suzuki, whose 12-year-old son, Hideyoshi, has just started middle school, was more guarded: "I'm still not sure that we've done the right thing."
Now that he has persuaded about a sixth of the population to return, Mayor Endo must convince the remainder to follow. That could prove difficult in a village where rice farming has been put on hold by the nuclear crisis, most shops and restaurants are still closed, and cultivated fields have been overtaken by wild grass.
"I'm glad that some people have decided to come back," he said. "But I worry that life here will never be what it was."