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People pray with lanterns in Yamada, Japan, on March 11 to mark the 10-year anniversary of the tsunami and nuclear crisis in Fukushima.

Kyodo/via REUTERs


Atsushi Matsueda was 32 and working at his mother’s shop in the small Fukushima town of Futaba, home of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, when a magnitude 9.0 earthquake struck 10 years ago, about 80 kilometres east of the northeastern Japanese city of Sendai. Two tectonic plates that had been building tension over centuries snapped together, and about 10 minutes later a 38-metre-tall tsunami overtook the coast and engulfed the city.

The earthquake was so powerful it caused a shifting of the Earth’s axis by 17 centimetres, a shortening of its days by 1.8 microseconds and a nuclear meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi plant.

“I believed, always believed, that Fukushima Daiichi was safe,” Mr. Matsueda told The Globe and Mail in a recent interview.

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Mr. Matsueda was at Daiichi’s sister plant, Fukushima Daini, 12 kilometres to the south during the earthquake. What was supposed to be a 20-minute drive home became a four-hour haul, with the emergency broadcast playing on loop. While his family was safe, their home was wrecked by the earthquake – they spent that night sleeping in their car.

The next day they awoke to Self-Defense Force soldiers in gas masks sent in to evacuate a 10-kilometre radius around Daiichi as the power plant workers had planned to vent pressure building up inside one of the reactors. At 3:36 p.m. local time, a spark inside the Unit 1 reactor lit hydrogen gas that had been increasing. As radiation leaked across the town necessitating evacuation, the population of Futaba turned to zero almost overnight from 7,000.

All the deaths related to the Great East Japan Earthquake have been deemed caused by both the quake and the tsunami: 15,899 died mostly from drowning or blunt force trauma, and as of 2019, 2,529 people are still unaccounted for and 47,000 people are still displaced. These numbers do not include victims of radiation exposure.

The Fukushima Daiichi reactor, shown on Nov. 15, 2009, before the disaster; on March 14, 2011, soon after it; and Feb. 28, 2021.

Satellite image ©2021 Maxar Technologies/AFP via Getty Images

Japan still struggles with aftershocks of the original earthquake – the latest of which was a magnitude 7.1 quake off the coast of Fukushima on Feb. 13, 2021. Kenji Satake, a professor at the Earthquake Research Institute at the University of Tokyo, notes that 11 aftershocks have occurred with a magnitude greater than 7.0 in the past 10 years: six in 2011, then one each in 2012, 2013, 2014, 2016, and then the recent one.

Prof. Satake expects these aftershocks to continue. However, the longer lasting effects of the disaster, one that will cost Japan for decades to come, is the cleanup of three nuclear power plant units of Fukushima Daiichi that exploded.

In 1971, when the Fukushima Daiichi power plant was finished, it had been rated for a three-metre tsunami – the largest that Tokyo Electric Power Co. estimated would ever hit the facility. In 2002, after a recalculation, TEPCO raised the seawall to 5.6 metres.

When then-prime minister Naoto Kan and his cabinet members opened their emergency nuclear response manuals on March 11, 2011, they found no contingencies for the situation they were in. In the eyes of the Japanese nuclear establishment, what had just happened was impossible. The tsunami wave that caused the chain of events leading to the hydrogen explosions of units 1, 3 and 4 of Fukushima Daiichi was 15 metres high.

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Fukushima prefecture, March 11, 2011: Tsunami waves hit the coast of Minamisoma. The designers of Fukushima Daiichi were unprepared for a contingency like this, with waves 15 metres tall.

SADATSUGU TOMIZAWA/AFP via Getty Images

Fukushima prefecture, Nov. 26, 2015: A sign reading 'nuclear power is the energy of a promising future' still stands on the cross-country road into Futuba. The slogan was created by a sixth grader that won a competition in 1988. The sign was taken down in 2015.

Andy Takagi

Ishinomaki, March 11, 2021: A woman looks at a newly unveiled memorial with the names of 3,173 people killed in the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. Hundreds of thousands were left homeless by the disasters.

Carl Court/Getty Images

Nearly a decade after the triple disaster, and after spending seven years in emergency housing in Tokyo, Mr. Matsueda and his family have made a home for themselves in the country’s capital.

Mr. Matsueda was one of more than 100,000 refugees from the northern region of Tohoku, which encompasses the disaster-affected areas, but he is one of the few that can never return to his hometown because of its proximity to Daiichi.

His wife is a South Korean national, his two daughters, Lily and Alice, and newly-born son, Theo, know only of Tokyo as their home: “I’m the only one who has the attitude of Fukushima. Lily and Alice are Tokyo children, they don’t have feelings toward Fukushima,” Mr. Matsueda explained.

Ten years after the disaster, cleanup progresses on a timeline spanning decades and a budget that is ever-increasing.

Workers in the area surrounding Daiichi, including Futaba and its sister town, Okuma, have worked to strip the radioactive topsoil from contaminated areas, putting it into neat black bags that line the open fields of the prefecture. The hope is that by 2045 a permanent storage facility will be created outside of Fukushima prefecture – so far, no one has volunteered to house the contaminated soil.

Inside the nuclear facility, reactor Unit 3 was cleared of its melted fuel on March 1, but the decommissioning process still has three to four decades left of work. With the melted fuel in the damaged reactor units preventing workers from entering without severe radiation exposure, remote-controlled robots have been used, but they, too, struggle to operate in such delicate procedures under harsh conditions.

Namie, March 4, 2011: Hundreds of sacks of radioactive soil and waste are collected in a town near the Fukushima meltdown site.

James Whitlow Delano/The New York Times

Futaba, March 10: A man looks at an exhibit at the Great East Japan Earthquake and Nuclear Disaster Memorial Museum, the focus of many 10th-anniversary events.

Yuichi Yamazaki/Getty Images

Futaba, March 10, 2021: A kite with messages from children in Fukushima prefecture is launched at the natural-disaster museum.

KAZUHIRO NOGI/AFP via Getty Images

While the government has slowly cleared the outskirts of Futaba for habitation, Mr. Matsueda doesn’t see himself moving back. His mother has dementia and the lack of medical facilities and basic necessities in the area all but ends the conversation on returning. “The government says, ‘Please come back.’ But it’s very hard because we have no neighbours, no neighbourhood. How can I live [there]?”

He’s gone back a few times by himself, first in July, 2011, to collect photo albums and mementos and a few times sporadically after that. The house itself still stands, but the condition is unlivable: “There’s nothing,” he said.

A 2012 report from a civilian commission, assembled by more than 30 researchers, scientists and journalists, laid the blame for the disaster squarely on the Japanese government and TEPCO for their dogmatic belief that nuclear energy was fundamentally safe. The report argues that this led to serious regulatory lapses, neglect of facility upkeep, and failures in the government’s response.

After the nuclear disaster of Fukushima Daiichi, Japan’s remaining nuclear power plants were placed under regulatory review, with nine currently operating across the country. Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has pushed for net-zero greenhouse gas emission by 2050 and the Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry recently re-emphasized nuclear energy as “indispensable” to this goal.


Fukushima: A guide in maps and charts

March 11 marks ten years since the tsunami generated by a 9.0 magnitude earthquake killed more than 15,000 people, displaced thousands more, and caused radiation leaks at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant

Prefectures with fatalities

Districts with assessed damage or flooding

Tectonic plate boundary

Nuclear power plant

Aftershocks

Hokkaido

1

Fatalities

As of Dec. 10, 2020

Aomori

3

Iwate

4,675

March 11

earthquake

9.0 magnitude

Miyagi

9,543

Yamagata

2

Fukushima

1,614

Fukushima Daiichi

Tochigi

4

Gunma

1

Ibaraki

24

Tokyo

Tokyo 7

Chiba

21

More than 400 aftershocks were registered in the month after March 11, the highest ever recorded in Japan

Kanagawa

4

0

100

KM

Estimated maximum wave heights

In metres

15

10

5

0

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: REUTERS

March 11 marks ten years since the tsunami generated by a 9.0 magnitude earthquake killed more than 15,000 people, displaced thousands more, and caused radiation leaks at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant

Prefectures with fatalities

Nuclear power plant

Districts with assessed

damage or flooding

Aftershocks

Tectonic plate boundary

Hokkaido

1

Fatalities

As of Dec. 10, 2020

Aomori

3

Iwate

4,675

March 11

earthquake

9.0 magnitude

Miyagi

9,543

Yamagata

2

Fukushima

1,614

Fukushima Daiichi

Tochigi

4

Gunma

1

Ibaraki

24

Tokyo

Tokyo 7

Chiba

21

More than 400 aftershocks were registered in the month after March 11, the highest ever recorded in Japan

Kanagawa

4

0

100

KM

Estimated maximum wave heights

In metres

15

10

5

0

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: REUTERS

March 11 marks ten years since the tsunami generated by a 9.0 magnitude earthquake killed more than 15,000 people, displaced thousands more, and caused radiation leaks at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant

Prefectures with fatalities

Districts with assessed damage or flooding

Nuclear power plant

Tectonic plate boundary

Aftershocks

Hokkaido

1

Fatalities

As of Dec. 10, 2020

Aomori

3

Iwate

4,675

Miyagi

9,543

Yamagata

2

March 11 earthquake

9.0 magnitude

Fukushima

1,614

Fukushima Daiichi

Tochigi

4

Gunma

1

Ibaraki

24

Tokyo

More than 400 aftershocks were registered in the month after March 11, the highest ever recorded in Japan

Tokyo 7

Chiba

21

Kanagawa

4

0

100

KM

Estimated maximum wave heights

In metres

15

10

5

0

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: REUTERS

Status of Fukushima evacuees

Number of people in thousands, as of December of each year

Temporary or public housing

Relatives’ or friend’s homes or other

332.7

321.4

274.1

233.5

182

130.7

77.4

53.7

48.6

42.4

2011

2012

2013

2014

2015

2016

2017

2018

2019

2020

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: REUTERS

Status of Fukushima evacuees

Number of people in thousands, as of December of each year

Temporary or public housing

Relatives’ or friend’s homes or other

332.7

321.4

274.1

233.5

182

130.7

77.4

53.7

48.6

42.4

2011

2012

2013

2014

2015

2016

2017

2018

2019

2020

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: REUTERS

Status of Fukushima evacuees

Number of people in thousands, as of December of each year

Temporary or public housing

332.7

321.4

Relatives’ or friend’s homes or other

274.1

233.5

182

130.7

77.4

53.7

48.6

42.4

2011

2012

2013

2014

2015

2016

2017

2018

2019

2020

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: REUTERS


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