Japan to speed up return of Fukushima area evacuees

General aerial view of Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO)'s tsunami-crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Fukushima prefecture, taken by Kyodo March 11, 2015. REUTERS/Kyodo/Files

TOKYO (Reuters) - Japan plans to revoke evacuation orders for most people forced from their homes by the Fukushima nuclear disaster within two years as part of a plan to cut compensation payouts and speed up reconstruction, the government said on Friday. The government also said, however, that it would delay the removal of dangerous spent uranium fuel rods at the wrecked Fukushima power station, another setback in Tokyo Electric Power Co's struggle to contain the world's worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl in 1986. Thousands of Fukushima residents remain in temporary housing more than four years after a massive earthquake and tsunami triggered meltdowns, explosions and radiation leaks at Tepco's Fukushima Daiichi plant. Some areas have been opened but many people are reluctant to return because of a lack of facilities and distrust of government claims it is safe. Others are resigned to never returning to their homes and businesses. "My hometown is Futaba and I returned from Tokyo dreaming of reviving an industry" before Fukushima, said Takahisa Ogawa, 44, a beekeeper before the meltdowns. "All that came to nothing because of the nuclear disaster," he said during a trial seeking compensation. Futaba town is close to the plant and will not have its evacuation order lifted under the plan. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's government and the utility, bailed out by taxpayers in 2012, are undertaking an unprecedented cleanup to lower radiation levels in towns closest to the plant, although some areas will likely remain off limits for decades. The Japanese government said on Friday it approved a revised "roadmap" for decommissioning the Fukushima Daiichi plant. The revision means delaying the start of work to remove spent nuclear fuel in cooling ponds in three reactors by as long as three years. This marks the second revision of the roadmap after it was last revised in June 2013. The government did not make changes to the overall goal to complete the decommissioning work in 30 to 40 years. Tepco has successfully removed 400 tonnes of spent fuel located in the upper floor of a fourth reactor building in a year long operation that was a rare success for the operator. But two of the other buildings have more damage in the fuel pools making the task more difficult. The rods must be kept under water to prevent overheating and radiation releases. (Reporting by Kentaro Hamada and Osamu Tsukimori; Additional reporting and Writing by Aaron Sheldrick; Editing by Paul Tait and Edmund Klamann)