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Japan SOS mayor vows to save town near nuclear plant

by Staff Writers
Fukushima City, Japan (AFP) May 13, 2011
His bold YouTube plea for help rang out across the world, but the mayor of a Japanese town near the stricken Fukushima nuclear plant says his community's struggle is far from over.

Katsunobu Sakurai, the mayor of Minamisoma, drew global attention with his 11-minute "SOS" video after the March 11 quake and tsunami that crippled the plant, when he warned of starvation among those left behind in what had become a ghost town.

Since then, aid has flooded in and many residents have returned to those parts of the town that lie outside the 20-kilometre (12-mile) no-go zone around the radiation-leaking atomic plant situated on the Pacific coast.

Sakurai has become an icon of recovery since TIME magazine named him as one of the world's 100 most influential people.

The Japanese government says a large part of the town is safe and won't have to be evacuated beyond the 20-kilometre limit, and Sakurai is now leading the battle to turn it into a thriving community again.

At least 535 people were killed and some 400 more are still officially listed as missing in the town which had a pre-disaster population of 70,000, and where nearly 6,000 houses were destroyed in the quake and tsunami.

The 55-year-old Sakurai, who hails from a local samurai clan and travels with a Geiger counter in his chest pocket, admits he never imagined his desperate plea would become a global sensation on the video-sharing site.

"I wanted to use every means possible including the Internet to tell people about the hardships, but I didn't expect it to reach so far," he said.

Since the quake, the nuclear plant, run by Tokyo Electric Power Company, has been rocked by explosions and leaked radiation into the air, soil and ocean in the world's worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl 25 years ago.

No one has died so far from radiation, but as many as 85,000 people, including many Minamisoma residents, have left their homes near the plant.

Two weeks after the massive quake, when the town's shops were empty, delivery vans had stopped, and local people were told to stay indoors, Sakurai said in the video clip: "Our citizens are being forced into starvation.

"I beg you from my heart to help us."

The town, its southern border in the no-go zone just 10 kilometres from the plant, has since received relief aid from across the world, and many residents who had at first fled in panic have gradually returned home.

Some grocery shops, petrol stations and restaurants have reopened, and banks and post offices resumed operations, while hundreds of evacuees now queue at a public hall for food, clothes and other daily supplies.

Sakurai, however, says full recovery is still a long way off.

"It looks active now, compared with the unimaginable scenes -- people, food, goods had disappeared from the city.

"But it's only half done," he said, noting that many Minamisoma residents whose homes are in the evacuation zone are living in shelters, with no review of their evacuation order likely until at least next year.

"Many firms and factories can't resume operations, schools remain closed, and farmers have been driven into a hopeless situation," the mayor said. "A pile of problems still lies ahead."

"The central government says, 'Let's start restoration'," Sakurai said. "Of course I want to do that, but how can we rebuild our town now? We can't do it unless the nuclear issue is resolved."

The major admitted to being in awe of the power of nature after witnessing Japan's greatest tectonic disaster ever recorded.

"What I learnt from the disaster is 'Don't try to stand against nature because you can't conquer it'," Sakurai said.

But he has no such respect for Japan's political and economic establishment, against which he so boldly protested -- a rare act among Japanese politicians and bureaucrats who are usually expected to exercise restraint.

"I hate the proverbs, 'There is safety in numbers' and 'Yield to the powerful'," Sakurai said vigorously. "'There is no safety in numbers.' 'Don't yield to the powerful.' These are the proverbs for a maverick like me."

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Japan to help TEPCO pay nuclear victims
Tokyo (AFP) May 13, 2011
Japan launched a rescue plan Friday to help nuclear plant owner TEPCO foot the bill for the Fukushima disaster, and started the shutdown of another atomic plant to prevent a similar calamity. Embattled operator Tokyo Electric Power Company faces compensation payments worth tens of billions of dollars for victims of the world's worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl a quarter of a century ago ... read more

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