Japan's government has decided to lift evacuation advisories in some areas more than 12 miles (20 kilometers) from the damaged Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant, opening the way for tens of thousands of people to return home, officials said Tuesday.
The advisories warned residents to be prepared to leave in case of worsening conditions at the plant. Although only a warning, many people fled their homes out of fear for their safety or because mandatory evacuation orders in nearby areas deprived them of city services.
Officials said the lifting will allow about 25,000 people covered by the advisories to return home in about a month.
A 12-mile no-go zone, in place since the March 11 earthquake and tsunami sent the nuclear plant into a meltdown, will remain in force. Officials said mandatory evacuation orders will also remain in place in several high-radiation areas outside the 12-mile exclusion zone.
The massive quake and subsequent tsunami destroyed power and cooling functions at the nuclear plant, causing three reactor cores to melt and triggering fires and explosions that spread large amounts of radioactive particles outside the complex.
More than 80,000 residents fled their homes after the disaster. Tens of thousands remain unable to return because of the radiation threat.
Officials at Tokyo Electric Power Co., the utility that operates the plant, and the government have said in recent weeks that the reactors have stabilized and the amount of radiation being released is now minimal.
"We have hoped to let evacuees return to their ordinary lives as soon as possible. It took five months to finally start the process," said Goshi Hosono, a Cabinet minister in charge of the nuclear crisis. "We will carry this out very cautiously."
Officials say most of the radiation in the reactor cores leaked out earlier in the crisis and what's left inside does not pose much danger. TEPCO has been injecting nitrogen into the reactors as a precaution to prevent further hydrogen explosions, said Osamu Suda, a Cabinet Office official in charge of evacuees.
Areas where the evacuation advisories are being lifted must work out plans within several weeks to decontaminate buildings and restart public services for the returning residents, Suda said. A government panel is currently compiling guidelines for the decontamination to address concerns from residents and support their resettlement process.
Also Tuesday, officials said they are considering allowing residents of areas within a 1.9-mile (3-kilometer) radius of the plant to make their first brief visit to their homes later this month.
Residents of the no-go zone and other high-risk areas will not be able to move back to their homes at least until the crippled reactors are stabilized further, Suda said. TEPCO and the government plan to bring the reactors to that status by early January.
Some experts say that target is too ambitious.