March 11, 2012

Posted on Sunday, March 11th, 2012 by Mike Roberts

 Today, March 11, 2012, is the one year anniversary of the earthquake which caused the destructive tsunamis in north-eastern Japan, and ultimately caused the problems at the nuclear power plants in Fukushima. We at Samurai Tours want to take this oppurtunity to pass on our prayers and thoughts to those who lost their lives one year ago. And we also wish to pass on a supportive “頑張って” (ganbatte – meaning to persevere) to those who are trying to rebuild their lives, homes and businesses. 

 There are numerous human interest stories here in the Japanese media related to the disaster, with more and more of them appearing as the anniversary drew near. One city will be planting cherry trees along the line where the tsunami reached today. One student, who will be graduating from school this March, announced he will be become a fire fighter after he was unable to save more people during the tsunami. Many cities will be holding special memorial services today, including exhibitions of photos and other mementos recovered during the cleanup. There was a major controversy in one small city concerning a large, highway bus that had ended up on top of a building from the tsunami. Public opinion was divided as to whether it should be left there as a reminder of what happened, or whether it should be removed because it was a reminder of what happened. It was finally decided to remove the bus, which was done on March 10. 

 Tsunami Cleanup and Recovery


 Much of the debris left behind from the tsunami has been cleaned up, but there is still a lot of work to do. There are still about 260,000 people living in temporary housing. As you might expect, many people are beginning to show frustration with the lack of progress. But there are many issues preventing them from rebuilding. Many cities are not allowing residents to rebuild until they either raise low-lying areas of their city or improve tsunami barriers. Some cities will not allow people to rebuild, but rather are forcing residents to rebuild on higher ground. The problem with this is that they don’t have a lot of choices. All of the habitable locations in Japan are already being used, and the cost of this option is prohibitive. And public opinion is divided as well. Many people are demanding they be allowed to rebuild their homes in their previous locations, while others are demanding they be moved to higher ground or other locations.  


 In the areas damaged by the tsunami, you will find huge piles of debris from the cleanup. The problem is how to dispose of this debris. Many cities around Japan have offered to help with this by burning the debris. But they withdrew their offer after receiving numerous complaints from their citizens, concerned about radiation. Whether their fears are rooted in reality or not, it doesn’t matter. There is a concern around Japan about this. As a result, only two cities at this time are helping with the disposal of debris, hampering the rebuilding efforts. 

 Nuclear Power Plants


 Since the earthquake, much has been learned about the details of what happened at the power plants. But there are still a number of unknowns however. They are predicting it will take 30-40 years to completely decommission and clean up the power plants. There is a general feeling around Japan that this is an optimistic estimate. Slow, but steady progress is being made, and the plants have been stabilized. The likelihood of another widespread contamination is highly unlikely. 

 However, since the accident, it has been learned it was known at the time of the crisis right after the earthquake the situation at the power plants was much worse than what was being reported to the public. And that a major catastrophe was only averted by what some people are calling luck due to governmental, bureaucratic and corporate mistakes and slow-downs. This has caused a major mis-trust of the Japanese people with the government and the power companies relating to nuclear energy, and a major backlash against nuclear energy. Here in Kyoto, Kansai Power has a large office across the street from the Kyoto train station which I walk by often. I sometimes see protests there in front of the office building. The interesting thing to me is the varied type of demonstrations. There are the well-funded and well-organized groups with their large buses and loud speakers blaring their message, to the college students with their guitars singing songs to the Japanese mothers who arranged their spontaneous protest through Facebook and Twitter. 

 In Japan, all of the nuclear power plants had to close every year for cleaning, maintenance and testing. The local prefectural and city governments have the final decision as to whether the plants can be restarted again. Since the accident, they are hesitant to allow the plants to be restarted.  So none of the plants closed have been restarted. There are about 55 plants in Japan. Of those, at this writing, only two are still operating. One of those is scheduled to shut down for its annual inspection before the end of March, and the last one will close in late April. Many people are predicting that Japan will go into the summer months with none of the power plants operating. The power companies are saying this will not be a problem, because they will be able to produce enough energy by increasing natural gas and coal usage to offset the loss from the nuclear plants. However, this is more expensive, so many Japanese companies are concerned that rates will be raised. This is especially a concern when the Yen is at its highest levels ever against foreign currencies, making it more difficult for Japanese companies to compete. Some people think the Japanese national government will step in and force the re-opening of some of these plants. 

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