By Sophie Knight and Antoni Slodkowski
IWAKI, Japan (Reuters) - For many of Japan's oldest nuclear refugees, all they want is to be allowed back to the homes they were forced to abandon. Others are ready to move away, severing ties to the ghost towns that remain in the shadow of the wrecked Fukushima nuclear plant.
But among the thousands of evacuees stuck in temporary housing more than two and a half years after the worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl, there is a shared understanding on one point - Japan's government is unable to deliver on its ambitious initial goals for cleaning up the areas that had to be evacuated after the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami disaster.
"You can't have a temporary life forever," said Ichiro Kazawa, 61, whose home was destroyed by the tsunami that also knocked out power to the Fukushima plant.
Kazawa escaped four minutes before the first wave. Next year, he hopes to return to a home within sight of the Fukushima plant and take his 88-year-old mother back. But he wants the government to admit what many evacuees have already accepted - for many there will be no going home as planned.
"I think it will be easier for people who can't go back anyway to be told that so they can plan their future," said Kazawa, who remains unemployed.
Lawmakers from Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's coalition parties on Monday recommended the government step back from the most ambitious Fukushima clean-up goals, and begin telling evacuees that a $30 billion clean-up will not achieve the long-term radiation reduction goal set by the previous administration. "The government and ruling party will act as one and deal with this firmly," said Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, adding that Abe would consider the proposal seriously.
The government is also considering a proposal floated earlier this month to offer new compensation to residents in the areas of highest radiation who have no prospect of returning home, officials involved have said.
"There will come a time when someone has to say, 'You won't be able to live here any more, but we will make up for it'," the secretary general of the LDP, Shigeru Ishiba, said in a speech earlier this month.
Around a third of the 160,000 people forced to flee when the earthquake and tsunami triggered a triple meltdown at the Fukushima plant remain in flimsy temporary housing units that are nearing the 3-year limit initially promised.
Social workers report an increase in domestic strife, alcoholism and illnesses such as deep vein thrombosis from lack of exercise. In August, the number of people in Fukushima who have died since the accident from illnesses related to prolonged evacuation rose to 1,539, nearing the prefecture's tsunami death toll of 1,599.
Among those who remain, there is frustration, resignation and a sense that the hardest decisions remain ahead.
"Politicians preferred to make people believe in something and put off making really difficult decisions until as late as possible," said Hideo Hasegawa, who runs a non-profit group in Fukushima helping evacuees.
The evacuation area - a little bigger than Hong Kong - was carved into three zones in late 2011 based on radiation readings. The most contaminated area was predicted to remain uninhabited for at least five years and remains off limits.
The Ministry of Environment has contracted work to clean up the 11 most heavily contaminated townships, with the aim of bringing the average annual radiation dose to 20 millisieverts per year based on a range suggested by the International Centre for Radiological Protection.
Current policy dictates that evacuation orders be lifted and compensation payments stopped when that level is reached. However, the government also set a lower, long-term target of 1 millisievert - twice the background radiation in Denver.
Some had hoped the decontamination project employing thousands of temporary workers to strip trees, spray roads and remove topsoil would be enough to hit that ambitious target.
Officials had cautioned from the start against those hopes, since 90 percent of the projected reduction in radiation comes from natural decay of radioactive particles over time.
Meanwhile, decontamination work has been marred by delays and reports that workers have sometimes simply dumped waste rather than collect it for later storage. The environment ministry has pushed back the deadline for completion for seven of 11 townships and has yet to announce new target dates.
Some evacuees remain concerned that 20 millisieverts per year poses health risks, especially for children. That dose over five years is the limit for nuclear workers. Many have stuck with the target of 1 millisievert as a yardstick for safety.
"No matter how hard they try to decontaminate, radiation isn't going down. So even though we have decided to go back, we can't," said Keiko Shioi, a 59-year-old housewife from Naraha, near the nuclear plant. Radiation near her house is running at two to three times the long-term target, she said.
Just 12 percent of evacuees from Tomioka, one of the most heavily contaminated villages, say they want to return home, according to a survey published in September.
"No matter how much they decontaminate I'm not going back because I have children and it is my responsibility to protect them," said Yumi Ide, a mother of two teenage boys from Tomioka.
Evacuees are equally worried about a lack of jobs, schools, medical care or even groceries in towns that have been abandoned since 2011.
"It doesn't make any sense to return people to towns with no infrastructure," said Norio Horiuchi, 71, a retired engineer from Tomioka.
(Additional reporting by Yoshifumi Takemoto and Takaya Yamaguchi; Editing by Kevin Krolicki and Ian Geoghegan)