Two Years On, Slow Tsunami Cleanup Progress Prompts Concerns

By Elaine Kurtenbach 11 March 2013

TOKYO – Monday’s two-year anniversary of Japan’s devastating earthquake, tsunami and nuclear catastrophe is highlighting the country’s continuing struggle 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 small fishing town of Miyako, sirens wailed as residents trundled to higher ground in a disaster drill. In some areas, searches for the 2,676 people still missing in the disaster continued, as workers poked through sand and debris along the coastline.

A thin blanket of snow covered the ground in Kesennuma, 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, who had to refurbish his home, just a few hundred meters (yards) from the sea, but on higher ground, after the tsunami flooded its first floor.

Throughout the disaster zone, the tens of thousands of survivors living in temporary housing are impatient to get resettled, a process that could take up to a decade, officials say.

“What I really want is to once again have a ‘my home,’” said Migaku Suzuki, a 69-year-old farm worker in Rikuzentakata, who lost the house he had just finished building in the disaster. Suzuki also lost a son in the tsunami, which obliterated much of the city.

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.

“I don’t trust the government on anything related to health anymore,” said Masaaki Watanabe, 42, who fled the nearby town of Minami Soma and doesn’t plan to return because the radiation in the ground is too high.

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.

Much of the area is off-limits, though some restrictions gradually are being lifted as workers remove debris and wipe down roofs by hand.

Many residents might give up on returning if they are 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. They are anxious to return home but worried about 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 filed 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 50,000 yen ($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 25 trillion yen (US $262 billion) from 19 trillion yen (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 economist will be undermined.”

Another lingering problem is that of discrimination against evacuees from Fukushima, Suzuki said. Many fear their children will find it hard to find spouses due to worries over potential long-term harm from radiation.

Watanabe, who used to work for a company maintaining the nuclear plant’s lighting systems, said his sons are sometimes shunned or taunted by classmates who say things like, “Don’t come near me. You’re radioactive.”