5 Years After Tsunami, Japan Still Feeling Fallout

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March 12, 2016

Five years after one of the most powerful and destructive earthquakes in known history, Japan still struggles with the fallout, nuclear and otherwise.

On March 11, 2011, an earthquake measuring 9.0 on the Richter Scale triggered a tsunami that descended on the northeast coast of Japan, wiping out tens of dozens of cities and towns and triggering a meltdown at the Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Plant that wide-ranging consequences across the country.

It was the worst nuclear accident since the 1986 Chernobyl disaster. The 30-foot-high walls were not tall enough to keep out the tsunami-driven seawater, which flooded the reactors and knocked the cooling systems offline, triggering a meltdown that the Japanese Government refused to acknowledge for nearly three months.

The total of people dead or missing approached 20,000, with nearly 16,000 of those confirmed dead. More than 150,000 people fled their homes and their workplaces. Devastation was immediate and widespread. Towns disappeared. Vehicles and buildings were swept out to sea. Even in those settlements unaffected by the deadly rushing water, residents had to heed calls for evacuation because of the resulting nuclear meltdown. Alarm bells rang around the country and around the Pacific region. Fears of the need for an evacuation of Tokyo, population 50 million, were very real.

That was in 2011. In 2016, some parts of the nuclear reactors at the power station are still unapproachable by humans, with radiation levels still off the charts. The Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) has sent in robots to find and dispose of radiactive fuel, but those machines have suffered meltdowns. The inventive solution of building an underground ice wall is meant to help stop radiation from seeping into the ground and, more importantly, the water surrounding the plant. Already, huge amounts of radioactive water has made its way into the ground and into the Pacific Ocean.

Conditions are not that dire everywhere, though. Radiation is low at other parts of the site. More than 8,000 people work at the plant on any given day, continuing the slow process of removing debris. Part of the daily routine is to continually pump large amounts of water into the reactors to keep them from overheating. The resulting radioactive water is then stored in nearby tanks, which are becoming quite numerous. Some estimates put the total amount of radioactive water stored in the tanks at more than 800,000 tons.

The eventual plan, TEPCO says, is the total decommissioning of the site. Officials say that those efforts, slowed by the constant presence of radiation, could take decades to complete. The country that once had 50 nuclear power plants online, providing 30 percent of the national power needs, shut down all plants for inspection, kept them offline for three years, and only in 2015 began restarting reactors, amid very public debate about the persistent risk of more danger.

Nearly 100,000 of those displaced have yet to return, living with family or in relief areas. Many parts of Fukushima still resemble ghost towns, showing signs of sudden evacuation like those found in Pompeii, after the devastation of Mount Vesuvius. Wall calendars still say March 2011. Laundry still hangs on racks. Farms and gardens are covered in weeds. School playgrounds lie silent. In classrooms, books are still open, awaiting more attention from the students who might never return.

The exclusion zone, designed to keep people out, is shrinking, slowly.

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