Conditions inside Fukushima’s reactors still unclear

Tokyo, Mar. 13: Japan on Monday marked 13 years since a massive earthquake and tsunami hit the country’s northern coasts. Nearly 20,000 people died, whole towns were wiped out and the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant was destroyed, creating deep fears of radiation that linger today. As the nation observes the anniversary, AP explains what is happening now at the plant and in neighbouring areas.

A magnitude 9.0 earthquake struck on March 11, 2011, causing a tsunami that battered northern coastal towns in Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures. The tsunami, which topped 15 metres (50 feet) in some areas, also slammed into the nuclear plant, destroying its power supply and fuel cooling systems, and causing meltdowns at reactors No. 1, 2 and 3.

Hydrogen explosions caused massive radiation leaks and contamination in the area.

The operator, Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings, says that the tsunami couldn’t have been anticipated. Government and independent investigations and some court decisions have said the accident was the result of human error, safety negligence, lax oversight by regulators and collusion.

Japan has since introduced stricter safety standards and at one point shifted to a nuclear energy phase-out. Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s government reversed that policy and has accelerated restarts of workable reactors to maintain nuclear power as a main source of Japan’s power supply.

A deadly Jan. 1 earthquake in Japan’s north central region destroyed many homes and roads but didn’t damage an idled nuclear power plant. Even so, it caused worry that current evacuation plans that solely focus on radiation leaks could be unworkable.

The nation marked a moment of silence at 2:46 p.m. Monday, with Kishida attending a memorial in Fukushima.

About 20,000 of more than 160,000 evacuated residents across Fukushima still haven’t returned home.

Decontamination work before the Tokyo Olympics meant to showcase Fukushima’s recovery led to the elimination of some no-go zones, but they remain in seven of 12 towns that had been fully or partially off-limits.

In Futaba, the hardest-hit town and a co-host of the Fukushima Daiichi plant, a small area was opened in 2022. About 100 people, or 1.5% per cent of the pre-disaster population, have returned to live. The other host town, Okuma, sacrificed part of its land to build an interim storage site for nuclear waste gathered from the decontamination, and 6% of its former residents have returned.

Annual surveys show the majority of evacuees have no intention of returning home, citing lack of jobs, schools and lost communities, as well as radiation concerns.

Residents who have raised radiation worries or linked it to their health problems have come under attack for hurting Fukushima’s reputation.

The disaster-hit towns, including those in Iwate and Miyagi prefectures, have seen sharp population drops.

Fukushima Gov. Masao Uchibori said on NHK TV that a growing number of young people want to move to Fukushima to open businesses or help in the reconstruction, and he expressed hope that more residents will return.

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