* Residents allowed back 3 years after disaster
* Families split; fears over radiation impact on kids
* Mayor calls return 'a fresh start'
(Recasts with returnees, changes date in dateline)
By Mari Saito
TAMURA, Japan, April 1 People in Japan on
Tuesday began their first homecomings in three years to a small
area evacuated after the Fukushima disaster, but families are
divided as worries about radiation and poor job prospects have
kept many away.
The reopening of the Miyakoji area of Tamura, a city 220 km
(140 miles) northeast of Tokyo and inland from the wrecked
Fukushima nuclear station, marks a tiny step for Japan as it
attempts to recover from the 2011 disasters.
But the event is a major milestone for the 357 registered
residents of the district. The trickle of returnees highlights
both people's desire to return to the forested hamlet and the
difficulty of returning to normal.
"Many of our friends and neighbours won't come back," said
Kimiko Koyama, 69, speaking on her return to the large farmhouse
she had occupied for 50 years, while her husband Toshio, 72,
tried to fix a television antenna on the roof.
"There are no jobs. It's inconvenient and young people are
scared of radiation," she said. "My daughter won't bring our
grandsons here because of the radiation."
Miyakoji, set amid rolling hills and rice paddies, has been
off-limits to most residents since March 2011, when the
government ordered evacuations after a devastating earthquake
and tsunami triggered a triple meltdown at the power plant on
the Pacific coast about 20 km (12 miles) away.
"The evacuation period was long, but I am happy that we can
finally return home," said Tamura Mayor Yukei Tomitsuka. "For
Tamura and its families, this is a fresh start."
THIRTY MINUTES TO PLAY
It is the first area in the 20-km (12-mile) Fukushima
exclusion zone to be reopened as decontamination was completed,
paving the way for more towns to be resettled.
The government had planned to lift the Miyakoji ban in late
October but opposition by residents delayed the move.
A few cars streamed into the town, where several TV news
vans were set up. Some elderly women sat by the roadside, but
there were no children or families in sight outside.
Schools open later this week, but seven children came to the
local pre-school and four older children were also dropped off,
as volunteers from nuclear plant operator Tokyo Electric Power
removed ice and snow and levelled the playground.
Children in temporary homes outside the evacuation zone got
30 minutes to play outdoors each day, but how long they will
spend outdoors now they are home has yet to be decided.
"We explain to them, 'There are bad germs outside and if you
stay out too long, the germs will get inside your body,'" one
teacher said. "Most of them understand."
The 2011 crisis forced more than 160,000 people from towns
near the Fukushima plant to evacuate. About a third still live
in temporary housing across the prefecture, their lives on hold
as they wait for Japan to finish decontamination.
Kitaro Saito, who is in his early 60s, will stay outside
Miyakoji, despite wanting to return to his large hillside house
there, because he thinks the government is using residents as
"guinea pigs" to test if more people can return home.
"Relatives are arguing over what to do," he said, warming
his hands outside his temporary home among rows of other
one-room trailers. "The town will be broken up."
Japan's $30 billion cleanup of radioactive fallout around
Fukushima is behind schedule and not expected to achieve the
long-term radiation reduction goal - 1 millisievert per year -
set by the previous administration.
Across Fukushima prefecture, hundreds of workers are still
scraping top soil, cutting leaves and branches off trees and
hosing down houses to lower radiation levels.
Radiation levels in Miyakoji ranged from 0.11 microsieverts
to 0.48 microsieverts per hour, February readings show.
That was higher than the average 0.034 microsieverts per
hour measured in central Tokyo on Monday, but comparable to
background radiation of about 0.2 microsieverts per hour in
Denver. A commercial flight between Tokyo and New York exposes
passengers to about 10 microsieverts per hour.
People exposed to radiation typically have a higher chance
of getting cancer if doses exceed 100 millisieverts (100,000
microsieverts), the World Health Organisation says.
Tuesday's homecoming is particularly difficult, as many
residents worked at the Fukushima plant before the disaster and
depended on Tepco for stable jobs.
"It was the only job out here and we were grateful," said
Kimiko Koyama. "We worked hard to feed our three daughters. We
worked and we built our life here."
The Koyamas, who helped to build the very nuclear reactors
that have displaced them from their homes, are letting the city
keep radioactive debris in an empty lot on their land in a bid
to hasten the cleanup.
(Reporting by Mari Saito; Editing by William Mallard, Mike
Collett-White and Clarence Fernandez)