Japan stops to remember the country’s devastating tsunami

Five years later, many problems still linger. At least 174,000 people are still evacuated, whilst farming and fishing in Fukushima are far from recovered despite the government’s optimism. At least, “30 to 40 years” will be needed to undone the effects of the damaged reactors. Meanwhile, most former residents do not want to go ack.

Tokyo (AsiaNews) – At 2:46 pm today, Japan’s 120 million people observed a moment of silence across the country. At a memorial ceremony, Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko bowed before cameras, and the country.

This Friday, TV, radio, and even the Tokyo stock exchange halted to mark the fifth anniversary of the March 2011 quake and tsunami that devastated coastal areas in the Tohoku region, killing at least 19,304 and leaving an additional 2,561 still unaccounted for.

The anniversary comes as some 174,000 evacuees from disaster-hit areas are still living outside their damaged hometowns. They include more than 43,000 from Fukushima, most of whom are believed to have fled the radioactive fallout from the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant managed by Tokyo Electric Power Co (TEPCO).

Although scientists say the situation in the area is now completely under control, people find it hard to trust and prefer to avoid local products.

In his address at the ceremony attended by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Emperor Akihito acknowledged that problems linger. “It is important that everyone’s hearts continue to be with the afflicted, so that each and every person in difficulty, without exception, will be able to get back their normal lives as soon as possible,” the monarch said.

In a paper released yesterday, the Japanese government claims that the “restoration of social infrastructure had been largely finished.”

According to the government, local residents have finished or are in the process of rebuilding 130,000 houses by themselves.

In addition, another 9,000 structures have been built to move coastal communities to higher ground to avoid another tsunami, with 17,000 more public housing units constructed for disaster survivors.

At a press conference, Mr Abe said that the region is on a path of recovery. “Now more than 70 per cent of (disaster-hit) agricultural land has become ready for planting, and nearly 90 per cent of fishery-product processing facilities have resumed operations”.

However, for many local residents and workers, it is still an uphill struggle. According to a survey conducted by Japan’s Fisheries Agency, just 48 per cent of local fishery-product processing plants have seen sales recover. The others are still waiting.

The main problem remains the fear of nuclear leaks in the sea off the Fukushima coast. In fact, at the crippled Fukushima No. 1 plant, problems are far from solved.

TEPCO, which had initially tried to downplay the impact of the disasters, said it would take another 30 to 40 years to finish work to decommission the heavily damaged reactors. The greatest challenge is removing melted nuclear fuel inside the three reactors active in March 2011.

After five years, the full extent of the damage is still unknown because the cores are still inaccessible because of the radiation. The use of various drones to inspect the area has not yet led to satisfactory results, and it is unclear how much longer problems will last.

The main concerns relate to Unit 1 Reactor, the hardest to cool. It is likely that the great heat that developed inside damaged the containment system, allowing the melted nuclear fuel (corium) to reach the thick concrete platform on which the reactor is installed.

For Unites 2 and 3 Reactor, the situation appears less serious, but even in their case, there are still question about their condition.

More importantly, 60 per cent of former residents have stated that they would never go back to live near the plant.