The town of Minami-Soma in Fukushima Prefecture had its no-entry designation lifted on Sunday for the first time since residents were evacuated after last year’s nuclear accident at the nearby Daiichi power plant.
Minami-Soma is the first coastal town to have the designation lifted.
The government is letting up to 16,000 people back into the area, but they won’t be allowed to stay overnight.
A 20-kilometer zone around the plant has been off-limits to about 100,000 residents for more than a year because of radiation contamination. But the plant was declared stable in December, with leaks substantially subsiding, and that let officials focus on how to clean up the contamination and allow some people to return.
The no-entry designation was lifted after the government rearranged the evacuation zone around the stricken nuclear plant based on three categories of contamination, rather than by distance. The strict perimeter was long criticized as an inexact measure of safety, as radiation levels varied widely in the area and some hotspots existed outside the area.
The change affects three of the 11 municipalities inside the former evacuation zone.
Parts of Minami-Soma still lie within contaminated zones but the town allowed residents to visit their homes in the least contaminated areas. Residents will be allowed to return permanently following further decontamination efforts, but there is no timetable on that yet.
Under the revised evacuation plans, areas with annual exposure levels estimated at 20 millisieverts or below are deemed safe for people to visit and prepare for their permanent return, while being encouraged to make further decontamination efforts. Limited access is allowed for residents in areas with higher contamination—up to 50 millisieverts of estimated annual exposure. Places with annual exposure estimates exceeding that will remain off-limits.