Tokyo (AP) - About 100 evacuees were allowed into the exclusion zone around Japan's troubled Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant Tuesday for a brief visit to gather belonging from their homes.
The excursion marked the first time the government has felt confident enough in the safety of the area to sanction even short trips there. Residents have been pushing hard for weeks for permission to check up on their homes.
The evacuees -- just a fraction of the tens of thousands forced to flee when the plant started leaking radiation after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami -- boarded chartered government buses for the two-hour visit.
They were provided with protective suits, goggles and face masks to wear while in the zone, and were issued plastic bags to put their belongings in. They were also given dosimeters to monitor radiation levels and walkie-talkies.
All were to be screened for radiation contamination after leaving the 12-mile (20-kilometer) zone.
More visits are planned in the months ahead, but residents fear they may never be able to return for good.
Many had been secretly sneaking back into the zone during the day, but the government -- concerned over safety and the possibility of theft -- began enforcing stricter road blocks and imposing fines on April 22.
The official visits were seen as a compromise that took both safety and the wishes of the residents into consideration.
Nine towns and villages are subject to the no-go zone order, and several more are on alert for a possible evacuation in the near future. Tens of thousands of residents from the area still live in evacuation shelters, though many have scattered to the homes of relatives or apartments in other locations across the country.
Government officials and the Tokyo Electric Power Co., which runs the Dai-ichi facility, have said that it could be six to nine months before the residents might return to resume their lives. But they admit even that is a best-case scenario.
Workers continue the battle to repair and stabilize the plant, but it remains highly radioactive in some areas, making progress slow and dangerous.