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Victims struggle six months on from Japan quake
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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Japan's new PM visits 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 told some 200 workers at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, which was crippled by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, that "without the rebirth of Fukushima, there will not be a rebirth of Japan."

"An end to the accident is what our country and the world is hoping for," said the premier, who was clad in white protective gear, according to local media.

"You hold the key to the solution to the problem," he told the workers, many of whom have spent nearly six months struggling to stabilise the world's worst nuclear accident since the 1986 Chernobyl disaster.

Noda, who was sworn in on Friday, made his comments in the operations room of the plant, which has been leaking radiation since the March disaster, then viewed the exterior of some of the damaged reactor buildings.

In a meeting later with Fukushima governor Yuhei Sato at his office, some 60 kilometres (38 miles) to the west, Noda apologised for the nuclear crisis, according to media.

He also promised to secure sufficient funds for reconstruction of the region -- including money to decontaminate areas affected by radioactive leaks.

Earlier in the day, Noda visited a sports complex, built by the plant's operator Tokyo Electric Power Co., which has become a makeshift base camp accommodating hundreds of emergency workers.

"Since the accident occurred, you all have worked on the front line for the Japanese people. I express my heartfelt gratitude," Noda said as he bowed to hundreds of workers.

He also praised troops dispatched to the area, saying they had worked "tirelessly" for the benefit of Japan.

"I feel proud from the bottom of my heart as the commander-in-chief of the Self Defence Forces," he said.

Noda came to power on Friday, replacing Naoto Kan who stepped down amid criticism over his handling of the aftermath of the triple disaster -- a 9.0 magnitude earthquake, a tsunami and nuclear accident.

The towering wall of water battered cooling systems at the Fukushima plant, 220 kilometres (138 miles) northeast of Tokyo, triggering reactor meltdowns and the spewing of radiation into the environment.

The government has said some areas close to the plant may be uninhabitable for years due to dangerous contamination, amid an erosion of public faith in how forthcoming officials have been about the consequences of the disaster.

Tens of thousands of people within a 20 kilometre radius and in some pockets beyond the plant have been evacuated, but many activists and scientists have called for a wider exclusion zone.

Japan is struggling to bring the crippled reactors to a state of cold shutdown by a January target.

Noda also plans to drive around the no-go zone and observe local residents' decontamination work in Date city, just outside of the evacuation zone.

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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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