TOKYO – The two-year anniversary Monday of Japan’s devastating earthquake, tsunami and nuclear catastrophe is spotlighting the stakes of the country’s struggles to clean up radiation, rebuild lost communities and determine new energy and economic strategies.
More than 300,000 people remain displaced and virtually no rebuilding has begun along the battered northeastern coast where the tsunami swept away entire communities.
Memorial services were to be held Monday in Tokyo and in barren towns along the northeastern coast to mark the moment, at 2:46 p.m., when the magnitude 9.0 earthquake — the strongest recorded in Japan’s history — struck off the coast, unleashing a massive tsunami that killed nearly 19,000 people.
In the ravaged fishing port of Kesennuma, a thin blanket of snow covered the ground where houses and fisheries once stood. Survivors live in temporary housing farther inland on higher ground, while others have decided to move away altogether. On Monday morning, fishermen, who are trying to get the vital industry back on its feet, lined up rows of tuna and other fish for auction.
“It’s scary (living here) when there is an earthquake. It’s scary, but I don’t plan to go anywhere else. I want to give my own very best, somehow, toward reconstruction of the city,” said 75-year-old Kenichi Oi.
Farther south, in Fukushima prefecture, some 160,000 evacuees are uncertain if they will ever be able to return to abandoned homes around the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant, where three reactors melted down and spewed radiation into the surrounding soil and water after the tsunami knocked out the plant’s vital cooling system.
In Kawauchi, one of many towns with varying degrees of access restrictions due to radiation, village chief Yuko Endo is pinning his hopes on the success of a long decontamination process that may or may not enable hundreds of residents to return home.
It’s a race against time because many residents might just give up on returning if kept waiting too long, he said.
“If I were told to wait for two more years, I might explode,” said Endo, who is determined to revive his town of mostly empty houses and overgrown fields. “After spending a huge amount of money, with the vegetable patches all cleaned up and ready for farming, we may end up with nobody willing to return.”
Evacuees are torn, anxious to return home, but worried over the potential, still uncertain risks from exposure to the radiation from the disaster, the worst since Chernobyl in 1986.
While there have been no clear cases of cancer linked to radiation from the plant, the upheaval in people’s lives, uncertainty about the future and long-term health concerns, especially for children, have taken an immense psychological toll on thousands of residents.
A group of 800 people were filing a lawsuit Monday in Fukushima against the government and Tokyo Electric Power Co., the utility that operates the Fukushima plant. It demands an apology payment of $625 a month for each victim until all radiation from the accident is wiped out, a process that could take decades.
A change of government late last year has raised hopes that authorities might move quicker with the cleanup and reconstruction.
Since taking office in late December, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has made a point of frequently visiting the disaster zone, promising faster action, and plans to raise the long-term reconstruction budget to $262 billion from about $200 billion.
Hopes for a significant improvement may be misplaced, said Hiroshi Suzuki, chairman of the Fukushima Prefectural Reconstruction Committee.
“There have been no major changes by the new government in response to the nuclear accident, though the budget has been increased,” he said. “If the reconstruction budget continues to serve as a tool for expanding public works spending, then I believe local societies and economies will be undermined.”