Tokyo—Japan marked the second anniversary on Monday of a devastating earthquake and tsunami that left nearly 19,000 people dead or missing.
At memorial observances in Tokyo and in barren towns along the northeastern coast, those gathered bowed their heads in a moment of silence marking the moment, at 2:46 p.m. on March 11, 2011, when the magnitude 9.0 earthquake— the strongest recorded in Japan’s history— struck off the coast.
More than 300,000 people remain displaced by the triple disasters, about half of them evacuees from areas near the wrecked Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plan, 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.
The government has vowed faster action to clean up radiation from meltdowns of its reactors and rebuild lost communities, but has yet to devise a post-disaster energy strategy —a central issue for its struggling economy.
Also Monday, hundreds of evacuees from the nuclear disaster caused by the catastrophe filed a lawsuit demanding compensation for their suffering and losses.
A group of 800 people filed the lawsuit Monday in Fukushima against the government and Tokyo Electric Power Co., the utility that operates the now-closed 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 US$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.”
The struggles to rebuild and to cope with the nuclear disaster are only the most immediate issues Japan is grappling with as it searches for new drivers for growth as its export manufacturing lags and its society ages.
Towns impatient to rebuild face the stark reality of dwindling, aging populations that are shrinking still further as residents give up on ever finding new jobs in areas where the backbone industries of fish processing and tourism were wrecked by the tsunami or paralyzed by the nuclear crisis.
Decommissioning the nuclear plant could take 40 years as its operator works on finding and removing melted nuclear fuel from inside its reactors, disposing of spent fuel rods and treating the many tons of contaminated waste water used to cool the reactors.
Japan’s 54 nuclear reactors shut down for regular inspections and then special tests to check their disaster preparedness, though two restarted last summer, to help meet power shortages. While polls show the majority of Japanese remain opposed to restarting more nuclear plants, Abe’s government has indicated it favours restarting those that meet revised safety standards.
The government looks likely to back away from a decision to phase out nuclear power by the 2030s: Abe says it may take a decade to decide on what Japan’s energy mix should be.