As One-Month Tsunami Anniversary Approaches, Japan's Nuclear Fears Far From Over
In the Japanese city of Minamisoma, just 18 kilometers from the Fukushima nuclear power plant, the Tsunakawa family has returned to retrieve pets and other belongings from their home.
The family was forced to flee after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami damaged the Fukushima plant, causing radiation leaks and rendering their town and others nearby part of a nuclear evacuation area.
Minamisoma looks like a dead zone, with police in protective suits continuing to search for bodies of people killed in the disaster. The Tsunakawas are one of the few families to risk a trip back to their homes.
Sadamu Tsunakawa, who is 62, has been living with his wife in an evacuation center north of the evacuation zone. But he says he is hopeful he can soon return to his home for good.
"I hope that they can solve the nuclear problem as soon as possible," he says. "And while I don't know how many years it will be until we can come back, I want them to fix it so that we can return. That area over there is destroyed, but there's a lot of agriculture. I'm not sure when they can start farming again, though. Either way, I hope to come back."
While they stayed in their home for only a short time, packing up their belongings and picking up the family dog and goldfish, the family managed to make lunch of noodles in their own kitchen and eat from their own dishes.
A nephew, 12-year-old Hayato Nishi, said it was a welcome change from eating from plastic containers at evacuation centers.
"Being able to come to back to one's house is definitely relaxing. It's kind of like coming back to your own world, and is nice in that respect," he says. "It also helps to get rid of tiredness, as one can actually sit back and take a breath. I definitely do want to stay, to remain in my own house."
But it is unclear when, if ever, the Tsunakawas and families like them will be able to return home.
Nearly a month after the catastrophe caused dangerous levels of radiation to leak from the damaged plant, Japan is struggling to contain the worst atomic crisis since the Chornobyl disaster in 1986.
Japanese engineers are hoping to stop pumping radioactive water into the sea today and start moving contaminated water out of a crippled nuclear reactor.
Such a move would be a key step forward. But engineers say the damaged reactors are still far from being under control and that it could take months to stabilize them and years to clean up the radioactive mess left behind.
The disaster has put mounting pressure on the Japanese government, with local polls in Japan today likely to weaken Prime Minister Naoto Kan as public frustration grows over his handling of the crisis.
In a last-minute effort to soften his critics, Kan today traveled to some of the worst-hit areas in northern Japan. Speaking to residents in the port city of Ishinomaki, the Japanese prime minister said the government would do its best to rebuild the fishing industry.
"I'd like to consider the rebuilding process the creation of a new city, rather than just a restoration of what we used to have there in the past," he said. "Truly, it's a new start for the future."
But critics say the most important step toward a better future should be eliminating nuclear power.
Hundreds of protesters gathered in the Japanese capital, Tokyo, today to protest the country's nuclear policy and the government's handling of the Fukushima crisis.
One protester, 28-year-old student Shigeki Okuno, expressed alarm at the spread of radioactivity from the Fukushima leak and called on the government to step up its efforts to control the crisis.
"We demand that the Kan government stop pumping radioactive water into the sea from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactor, stop withholding information, and we are also marching to prevent residents of Fukushima from further radioactive contamination," he says.
Nuclear researchers in Vienna say radiation from Japan spread throughout the entire Northern Hemisphere in the first two weeks after the earthquake and tsunami.
Several countries have already restricted food imports from Japan over radiation fears.