NARAHA (Japan) • More than four years after Mr Satoru Yamauchi abandoned his noodle restaurant to escape radiation spreading from the tsunami-wrecked Fukushima nuclear plant, the Japanese government is almost ready to declare it safe to go home.
But, like many of the displaced, he is not sure if he wants to.
"I want my old life back, but I don't think it is possible here," he said, on a recent visit to the dusty soba buckwheat noodle restaurant in Nahara that he ran for more than two decades.
The father of four has been living in Tokyo since evacuating his home to escape toxic pollution spewing from crippled reactors hit by a tsunami in March 2011.
Meltdowns in three of the reactors - 20km away - blanketed vast tracts of land with isotopes of iodine and cesium, products of nuclear reactions that are hazardous to health if ingested, inhaled or absorbed.
You cannot work on a farm, you cannot grow rice and you cannot pick wild plants either. (The restaurant) was my everything... it was my life. There is nothing good about going back.
MR SATORU YAMAUCHI, who abandoned his noodle restaurant to escape radiation from the Fukushima nuclear plant
Of the municipalities immediately surrounding the nuclear plant which were totally evacuated, Naraha will be the first to which people will be allowed to return.
Making polluted land habitable
IITATE (Japan) • Sweating inside their plastic protection suits, thousands toil in Japan's muggy early summer to scrub out traces of radiation from the towns around Fukushima.
Their mission is to decontaminate hundreds of square kilometres of land polluted when reactors went into meltdown after a huge tsunami struck the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in March 2011. No stone is left unturned.
The workers scrape away the top layer of earth in fields, school courtyards and around village buildings, while houses, buildings, roads and parking lots are scrubbed clean.
At least 20,000 people - all dressed in the special gloves, masks and boots required for workers in the nuclear industry - are involved in the cleanup, according to the Environment Ministry.
Some 2.5 million black bags filled with contaminated soil, plants and leaves wait at the sites or in one of the nearly 800 temporary outdoor storage facilities set up across the disaster zone.
The mammoth effort comes as Japan's government prepares to declare sections of the evacuation zone habitable again.
That will mean evacuees can return to the homes they abandoned more than four years ago.
It will also mean that some will have no choice but to go back, as it will trigger the end of some compensation payments, say campaigners.
Government-run decontamination efforts are under way in 11 towns, where anyone living there would be exposed to current radiation levels of more than 20 milliSieverts (mSv) a year, says Tokyo. The globally-accepted norm for radiation absorption is 1 mSv per year, although the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and others say anything up to 20 mSv per year poses no immediate danger to human health.
Still, the area immediately surrounding the plant remains uninhabitable, and storage sites meant to last 30 years are being built in the villages closest to the complex.
For now, only residential areas are being cleaned in the short term, and the worst-hit parts of the countryside are being omitted, a recommendation made by the IAEA.
After years of decontamination work, where teams remove topsoil, wash exposed road surfaces and wipe down buildings, the government will in September lift the evacuation order and declare it a safe place to live. The government aims to lift many evacuation orders by March 2017. A year after that, the monthly 100,000 yen (S$1,105) in "psychological compensation" that plant operator Tokyo Electric Power (Tepco) has been ordered to pay to evacuees, will cease.
Activists said that despite assurances, many areas still show highly elevated levels of contamination. They said that for people who abandoned now almost worthless - but still mortgaged - homes, allowing Tepco to stop payments would amount to forcing them to return.
Environmental campaign group Greenpeace has carried out a study of radiation contamination in Iitate, also being eyed for resettlement, which sits around 40km north-west of the crippled plant.
The town is significant because the government did not order its evacuation until more than a month after the nuclear accident, but post facto modelling of the radiation plume showed that Iitate was right in its path.
The study said only a quarter of Iitate has been decontaminated - predominantly roads, homes and a short buffer strip of woodland around inhabited areas. A person living in the area could expect to absorb 20 times the internationally accepted level for public exposure.
In Naraha, which is south-east of the plant and effectively upwind of the disaster, government data showed that contamination levels are much lower than at Iitate.
The end of the evacuation order is "based on citizens' real voices and plans to accelerate reconstruction", said mayor Yukiei Matsumoto, adding that a "prolonged evacuee life is not desirable".
But concerns are still high.
"You cannot work on a farm... and you cannot pick wild plants either," said Mr Yamauchi, 60, whose speciality used to be tempura made with seasonal wild vegetables.
"(The restaurant) was my everything... it was my life," he said, his voice cracking. "There is nothing good about going back."