With silence, prayers and anti-nuclear protests, Japan on Thursday mourned some 20,000 victims of the massive earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan 10 years ago, destroying cities and triggering nuclear disruptions in Fukushima.
Huge waves triggered by the 9.0 magnitude earthquake – one of the strongest recorded – crashed into the northeast coast, paralyzing the Fukushima Dai-ichi power plant and forcing more than 160,000 residents to flee when radiation erupted into the air.
The world’s worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl and the earthquake have left survivors struggling to overcome the grief of losing families and cities to the waves in a few terrifying hours on the afternoon of March 11, 2011.
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About 50 kilometers south of the plant, in the gravel coastal town of Iwaki, which has since become a hub for nuclear power plant workers, restaurant owner Atsushi Niizuma asked his mother, who was killed by the waves.
“I want to tell my mother that my children, who were all close to her, are fine. I came here to thank her for keeping our family safe, ”said Niizuma, 47.
Before leaving for work, he quietly praised a stone monument at a shrine with carvings of his mother’s name, Mitsuko, and 65 others who died in the disaster.
On the day of the earthquake, Mitsuko looked after his children. The children rushed into a car but Mitsuko was swept away by the waves when she returned to the house to grab her belongings. It took a month to restore her body, Niizuma said.
The Akiba Shrine has become a symbol of resilience for survivors, as it was barely damaged by the tsunami while nearby houses were swept away or burned down.
About two dozen residents gathered with Niizuma to decorate it with paper cranes, flowers and yellow handkerchiefs with jump messages sent by students from across the country.
“It was slippery 10 years ago, and it was cold. The cold always brought me back to the memory of what happened that day “, says Hiroko Ishikawa, 62.
“But with your back in the sun and feeling more relaxed. It’s like the sun is telling us ‘It’s okay, why do not you talk to everyone who came back to visit their hometown?’ “
Remember the dead
Emperor Naruhito and Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga were planned to honor the dead at an anniversary ceremony in Tokyo, while several other events were planned across northeastern Japan, which were hardest hit by tremor.
The government has spent about $ 300 billion (32.1 trillion yen) to rebuild the region, but areas around the Fukushima facility are still out of bounds, concerns about radiation levels remain lingering and many who have left have settled elsewhere. Decommissioning the paralyzed facility will take decades and billions of dollars.
About 40,000 people are still displaced by the disaster.
Japan is once again discussing the role of nuclear power in its energy mix, as the resource-poor country aims to achieve net carbon neutrality by 2050 to combat global warming. But an NHK public television survey showed 85% of the public’s concerns about nuclear accidents.
The mass demonstrations against nuclear power seen in the wake of 3/11 have faded, but mistrust remains. Some anti-nuclear activists are planning demonstrations in front of the operator of the facility, Tokyo Electric Power, for Thursday night.
Only nine of Japan’s 33 remaining commercial reactors have been approved for restart according to safety standards after Fukushima and only four are in operation, compared to 54 before the disaster.
Nuclear power delivered only 6% of Japan’s energy needs in the first half of 2020, compared with 23.1% for renewable sources – well behind Germany’s 46.3% – and almost 70% for fossil fuels.