One year after the devastating earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster that rocked Japan on March 11, 2011, the country looks to be once again back on track as a longtime supporter of nuclear power. Backed by Japan's mighty power companies, the government seems eager to restart the dozens of nuclear reactors across the country that it has kept shuttered in the wake of the crisis. In December, nine months after the disaster, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda declared an end to the nuclear crisis, announcing that the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant's damaged reactors had been cooled down and stabilized. In February, Japan's nuclear regulators publicly assured the country that two reactors at the Ohi nuclear power plant in Fukui, on Japan's western coast, could survive a combined earthquake and tsunami as large as the one that caused more than 20,000 deaths in northeast Japan in March of last year. And the government even went so far as to get the international seal of approval: The United Nation's nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, sent in experts in late January who supported this assessment, as the Japanese regulators had expected. Now Noda is planning to visit Fukui to persuade the prefectural governor and other heads of local communities who have expressed concern about the safety of nuclear power to agree to have the reactors run again before the peak energy-intensive summer months.
But is this the path for recovery that the Japanese people want? Apparently not. In a survey conducted in June of last year, 74 percent of respondents said that Japan should phase out nuclear power with an eventual goal of abandoning it.
The picture on the ground is still grim. Due to high levels of radiation around Fukushima, about 100,000 residents have been forced to evacuate, tearing apart families and communities in what was once a close-knit, largely rural area. Even outside the forced evacuation zone, which extends a 20-kilometer radius from the destroyed Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, residents were ordered to vacate their communities.
Farmers who chose to stay -- despite contamination -- stack crops and hay on their land in vain, knowing they can neither sell nor destroy their produce because the government prohibits both trade and disposal.
Iitate is one of those dozens of communities. In this farming village of 6,000 residents, only seven families remain. Mayor Norio Kanno, who visited the United States in February, said, "Although decontamination work in the village has commenced, we presume that it will take two to three years before houses will be rid of radiation, five to six years for farmlands, and about 20 years for forests to be cleared. The villagers still have no idea when they can go home and settle back in."
One-hundred miles away from Fukushima, Tokyo's suburban population is also declining. The capital's eastern neighbor, Chiba, lost more than 7,000 residents last year, the first decline in modern history, according to the prefectural office. Anxious families -- particularly those with young children -- have left the metropolitan area for places as far away as Singapore, unable to contain fears over material released from the damaged Fukushima reactors.