Japan marks fifth anniversary of earthquake and tsunami

Quake in 2011 killed 20,000 people and crippled Fukushima nuclear plant

Members of the public observe a moment of silence to mark the exact time when the magnitude 9.0 earthquake struck off Japan’s coast in 2011. Photograph: Toru Hanai/Reuters

Members of the public observe a moment of silence to mark the exact time when the magnitude 9.0 earthquake struck off Japan’s coast in 2011. Photograph: Toru Hanai/Reuters

 

Japan on Friday mourned the thousands who lost their lives in a massive earthquake and tsunami five years ago that turned towns to matchwood and triggered the world’s worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl in 1986.

The nine-magnitude quake struck offshore on a chilly Friday, sparking huge black waves along a vast swathe of coastline and killing nearly 20,000 people.

The tsunami crippled the Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Plant, where meltdowns in three reactors spewed radiation over a wide area of the countryside, contaminating water, food and air.

More than 160,000 people were evacuated from nearby towns and some 10 per cent still live in temporary housing across Fukushima prefecture. Most have settled outside their hometowns and have begun new lives.

Ice wall

The robots sent in to find highly radioactive fuel at Fukushima’s nuclear reactors have “died”; a subterranean “ice wall” around the crippled plant meant to stop groundwater from becoming contaminated has yet to be finished. And authorities still don‘t know how to dispose of highly radioactive water stored in an ever mounting number of tanks around the site.

Today, the radiation at the Fukushima plant is still so powerful it has proven impossible to get into its bowels to find and remove the extremely dangerous blobs of melted fuel rods.

The plant’s operator, Tokyo Electric Power Co (Tepco) , has made some progress, such as removing hundreds of spent fuel roads in one damaged building. But the technology needed to establish the location of the melted fuel rods in the other three reactors at the plant has not been developed.

The fuel rods melted through their containment vessels in the reactors, and no one knows exactly where they are now. This part of the plant is so dangerous to humans, Tepco has been developing robots, which can swim under water and negotiate obstacles in damaged tunnels and piping to search for the melted fuel rods.

Tepco, which was fiercely criticised for its handling of the disaster, says conditions at the Fukushima power station, site of the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl in Ukraine 30 years ago, have improved dramatically. Radiation levels in many places at the site are now as low as those in Tokyo.

The utility has so far failed to get the backing of local fishermen to release water it has treated into the ocean.

Tepco is building the world’s biggest ice wall to keep groundwater from flowing into the basements of the damaged reactors and getting contaminated.

First suggested in 2013 and strongly backed by the government, the wall was completed in February, after months of delays and questions surrounding its effectiveness. Later this year, Tepco plans to pump water into the wall - which looks a bit like the piping behind a refrigerator - to start the freezing process.

‘So much regret’

In coastal Rikuzentakata, which was flattened by a wave as much as 17 metres high and lost seven per cent of its population along with its entire downtown, the pain remains strong.

“Infrastructure is recovering, hearts are not. I thought time would take care of things,” said Eiki Kumagai, a volunteer fireman who lost 51 colleagues, many killed as they guided others to safety.

“I keep seeing the faces of those who died... There’s so much regret, I can’t express it.”

Mr Abe and Emperor Akihito will take part in a ceremony in Tokyo that will include a moment of silence at the time of the quake, 2.46 pm (05.46 GMT), when bells will ring in the city centre and residents across the nation bow their heads.

Japan, one of the world’s most seismically active areas, marked the day with prayers and graveside visits. All the trains on the vast Tokyo underground network will halt to mark the moment the quake struck.

Billions of dollars in government spending have helped stricken communities rise from the ruins, including elevating the earth to protect them from future waves and cleaning radiation-contaminated land, but much remains to be done for thousands still languishing in barracks-like temporary housing.

“I get the feeling that the number of people who don’t know what to do, who aren’t even trying, is increasing,” said Kazuo Sato, a former fisherman from Rikuzentakata. “Their hearts are in pieces.”

Government spending on reconstruction is set to dip from the start of the new fiscal year in April. But Mr Abe pledged continued support.

“There are still many people living difficult lives in temporary housing and those who because of the nuclear accident cannot return to the places they lived,” Mr Abe told reporters on Thursday.

“We will speed up our efforts to build housing and disaster-proof towns ... so they can return as quickly as possible to permanent housing and stable lives.”

Reuters