Higashimatsushima, Japan (AFP) April 7, 2011
Nearly four weeks after a massive tsunami slammed into northeastern Japan, the devastation it left in its wake has barely been touched as radiation and legal issues hamper the clean-up.
Huge freight ships lie on the shoreline, mangled train carriages are strewn across a hillside, and tsunami barriers overturned by the wave's force litter the area, the visible reminders of the biggest earthquake ever to hit Japan.
Experts say clearing away the rubble is a vital step in allowing victims to move on from the quake and tsunami, which left more than 12,000 dead and over 15,000 missing in the worst disaster to hit the country since World War II.
But with an estimated 25 million tonnes of debris to remove, they warn the clean-up operation could take years, slowed by the threat of radiation from a damaged nuclear plant and legal questions over destroyed property.
"There is a tremendous amount of rubble to be cleared," said Nagahisa Hirayama, professor of urban engineering at Kyoto University in western Japan, who estimated the area would usually take 16 years to produce as much waste.
"It needs to be done quickly as it is a visible step towards recovery."
Along the more than 300 kilometres (186 miles) of coastline hit by the March 11 tsunami, bulldozers have begun clearing houses flattened by the giant wave.
"It's not easy to proceed with removal because there are still personal mementos and bodies under the debris," said Tetsuya Koizumi, working on the clean-up in Rikuzentakata, a seaside resort northwest of the quake's epicentre.
"There's a mix of materials, which makes our job harder as we have to sort them out first," he added. "The wreck is too huge to even consider how long it would take to clean it up."
Sorting through the rubble to recover personal effects is a huge task. Refrigerators lie beside clothes stored in drawers, while clocks, video games, paintings and the remains of Buddhist shrines -- a common sight in homes in Japan -- are scattered in the dirt.
The environment ministry estimates the volume of debris to be disposed of in the worst-hit prefectures of Miyagi, Iwate, and Fukushima at around 24.9 million tons -- a figure that does not include cars.
Japan's centre-left government has promised to cover the cost of the clean-up, forecast by some analysts to reach more than one trillion yen (12 billion dollars).
The government hopes the cleansing and reconstruction will create much-needed jobs for local people in the worst-hit areas, but still needs the agreement of the opposition to finance the plan.
The governor of Miyagi prefecture said it would take three years to clear the debris, while Akira Oikawa, an official in neighbouring Iwate, warned it could take up to five years to get back to normal there.
"Disposal operations are quite complicated as some houses were swept kilometres away," Oikawa said. "There are also special procedures to be carried out before we can dispose of private property such as cars."
In Fukushima, the situation has been further complicated by a 20-kilometre (13-mile) exclusion zone around the stricken Daiichi nuclear power plant, where it has not even been possible to reach the wreckage.
Elsewhere, survivors are beginning to return to the site of their former homes to try to find their most treasured belongings -- usually photo albums -- before the bulldozers arrive.
When Yuka Matsukawa returned to where she used to live in the small coastal city of Higashimatsushima in Miyagi prefecture, she found only the roof and a scattering of her belongings remained -- the rest had been taken by the sea.
But the 22-year-old, who this month enrolled at a local college, is philosophical about the disaster.
"I may have lost everything, but I still have my memories," she reflected. "I am alive. My family and friends are alive. I can be happy with that."
earlier related report
The 1970s era Fukushima No. 1 plant was rocked by the 9.0-magnitude quake on March 11 and then hit by the 14-metre (46-foot) tsunami it triggered, cutting it off from the national electric grid and knocking out its backup power supply.
This shut down the cooling systems needed to keep the fuel rods inside reactors, and spent rods in containment pools, from overheating and boiling off the water around them, which can lead to their melting down and releasing radiation.
To stop a catastrophe, crews have pumped thousands of tonnes of water into the reactors and pools, urgent work now creating a massive amount of radioactive water and sparking a fresh fear of contamination in the Pacific Ocean.
Emergency workers have found turbine buildings and trench tunnels outside submerged in highly radioactive water, also discovering water leaking from a cracked pit into the ocean.
They have successfully stopped the water leakage and are now checking for any more water runoffs from the plant.
In order to find safe storage space for the most radioactive water -- so dangerous that it is halting crucial repair work -- operator TEPCO has been forced to empty containers with lower-level radioactive water into the ocean.
The Tokyo Electric Power Company has released 11,500 tonnes, or more than four Olympic pools-worth, into the sea, despite protests from local fishermen.
Here is the current state of each of the six reactors at the plant.
-- REACTOR ONE --
Overheating has caused a partial meltdown of the reactor core. TEPCO believes some 70 percent of its 400 fuel rods have been damaged.
Workers have injected pure water, switching from sea water used last month, into the pressure vessel via a pump, but the cooling system has not been restored yet.
With hydrogen and oxygen likely to have accumulated inside the reactor vessel, workers began pumping inert nitrogen gas early Thursday to prevent a possible hydrogen blast.
Workers had begun pumping out radioactive water from the basement of the adjacent turbine building, but found more in a trench outside the turbine building, 56 metres (yards) from the ocean.
-- REACTOR TWO --
Also thought to have suffered a partial meltdown, with about 30 percent of 548 fuel rods likely damaged.
The torus -- the reactor's suppression pool which controls the pressure inside the reactor container -- has likely been damaged.
Spent fuel rods in the pool were fully exposed at one stage, but TEPCO has said they are now submerged in water and in a stable condition.
A puddle of highly contaminated water was found in the basement of the turbine building and outside in a trench, where a radiation reading of over 1,000 millisieverts per hour was measured.
Workers have injected pure water containing boric acid into the pressure vessel, after dumping sea water as an emergency means.
They found a crack in a seaside concrete pit near this reactor, which was leaking highly radioactive water.
After several failed attempts to seal the crack, using cement, and even newspapers and sawdust, workers stopped the leak Wednesday morning after injecting sodium silicate, a chemical agent known as "water glass", to solidify soil near the pit.
-- REACTOR THREE --
A hydrogen explosion badly damaged the outer building, and a partial meltdown is also suspected. TEPCO said about 25 percent of the 548 fuel rods may be damaged.
Three workers were exposed to high levels of radiation last month when they stepped in contaminated water at the basement of the turbine building. They were found to have suffered no major injury.
Workers had used sea water to cool both the reactor and spent fuel pool but have now changed to fresh water.
-- REACTOR FOUR --
The reactor was undergoing maintenance when the quake struck and there are no rods in the core.
Fires broke out in the building several days after the quake. These were tackled with water, which made its way into the spent fuel pool.
Firefighters doused the spent fuel pool using a concrete pumping vehicle, usually used in the construction industry. TEPCO has said its spent fuel pool is now submerged in water.
Contaminated water was found in the basement of the turbine building but workers have yet to remove it.
-- REACTORS FIVE AND SIX --
Undergoing maintenance when the quake hit, but fuel rods were already placed in the cores as they were prepared for operation.
Workers have created three holes in each of the reactor buildings, aiming to vent hydrogen out and prevent an explosion.
They have restarted the cooling systems both for the reactors and the spent fuel pools, which have remained stable.
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