by Staff Writers
Tokyo (AFP) Sept 9, 2011
As Japan prepares to mark six months since the March earthquake, tens of thousands remain in temporary housing, mourning loved ones, fearful of radiation and despairing over a marathon road to recovery.
The raging wall of water unleashed by the record 9.0 magnitude March 11 quake left an indelible scar on Japan's northeastern Pacific coast, killing 20,000 and sparking the worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl 25 years ago.
Much rubble has been cleared, leaving vast empty mud fields. Makeshift shelters at schools and public halls have closed after temporary housing was hastily constructed. But mental scars will take longer to heal.
"People talk about recovery, but there is no such thing here," said fisherman Take Tachibana, 66, still searching for his sister's body after the tsunami took his house, his boat and 600 lives from his town of Yamada.
"It is too early to think of the future. I don't know what to do."
Rebuilding the muddy wastelands of the northeastern "Tohoku" region is expected to cost hundreds of billions of dollars and take up to a decade. Areas close to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant may be uninhabitable for longer.
For many, faith in government has been eroded amid criticism over its response to the disaster, suspicions it underplayed the full scale of the nuclear crisis, and as political infighting overshadowed recovery efforts.
Radiation fears are a daily fact of life after cases of contaminated water, beef, vegetables, tea and seafood due to the Fukushima accident. The government has been at pains to stress the lack of an "immediate" health risk.
"Since March 11, my life has changed completely," said Yuko Sugimoto, 56, from Namie, a village in the 20 kilometre (12 mile) no-go zone set up around the nuclear plant after it was crippled in the tsunami.
Sugimoto has been forced to give up plans to raise and sell organic vegetables this year. "All we have now is despair, stress and the worry that we will be discarded as time goes by," she said.
Facing huge compensation costs, plant operator TEPCO made initial payments of one million yen ($13,000) per family, but this has failed to soothe anger about lost homes, jobs and livelihoods and potential long-term health risks.
Activists and scientists have called for a wider evacuation zone with fears that it does not account for unpredictable radiation fallout patterns on the ground after the plant spewed radiation into the environment, including pockets more than 100 kilometres (62 miles) away.
Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) hopes to bring the Fukushima facility into stable "cold shutdown" by January.
But some areas in the zone could be uninhabitable for decades, with radiation equivalent to more than 500 millisieverts (mSv) per year, compared to a legal limit that was raised from 1.0 to 20 mSv per year after the accident.
Parents living nearby face a nightmare dilemma: evacuate their children or live with the fear that radiation will make them sick. Experts agree that children face a higher risk than adults from radiation-linked cancers.
Fears were heightened after tests showed trace radioactive substances in urine samples of children in Fukushima, where schools now give dosimeters to each student.
Japan's new Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, who replaced his heavily criticised predecessor Naoto Kan earlier this month, pledged to speed up recovery efforts.
His government plans to set up a new nuclear regulator to replace the existing Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, seen culpable in TEPCO's failure to foresee the threat to the Fukushima plant from a giant tsunami.
The disaster also triggered a wave of anti-nuclear sentiment in the resource-poor nation. Most reactors are currently offline for safety tests. Noda and other officials have signalled Japan may eventually phase out nuclear power.
Parliament passed a law to promote renewable energy such as wind, solar and geothermal last month, and major companies such as mobile phone operator Softbank are entering potentially lucrative power businesses.
The disaster's impact on manufacturing and demand helped tip Japan into recession, but hopes for a second-half rebound have been clouded by a slowing global economy and the strong yen's impact on the profitability of exporters.
The government estimates that at least 70,000 people in the three tsunami-hit prefectures -- Fukushima, Miyagi and Iwate -- lost their jobs due to the disaster, but analysts say the figure is far higher.
While life is getting back to normal in cities such as Tokyo -- where supermarkets were stripped of supplies in the disaster's early aftermath -- areas such as Fukushima face a long road to recovery.
"People in other affected areas still have hope, which we don't have in Fukushima," said Sugimoto. "The nuclear accident did not only open Pandora's box, it destroyed it and took away the hope left inside."
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When the Earth Quakes
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Japan's new PM in crisis-hit Fukushima
Tokyo (AFP) Sept 8, 2011
Japan's new Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda on Thursday visited Fukushima for the first time since he took office a week ago, paying tribute to hundreds of workers battling to contain the nuclear crisis. Noda, who declared "without the rebirth of Fukushima, there will not be a rebirth of Japan," when he was sworn in Friday, will inspect the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant and me ... read more
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