Japan stopped on Sunday to remember the massive earthquake and tsunami that struck the nation a year ago, killing just over 19,000 people and unleashing the world's worst nuclear crisis in a quarter century.
Along the tsunami-battered northeastern coast, in Tokyo and elsewhere, memorial ceremonies were planned to mark 2:46 p.m. — the precise moment the magnitude-9.0 earthquake hit on March 11, 2011. The quake — the strongest recorded in Japan's history — set off a tsunami that towered more than 20 metres in some spots along the northeastern coast, destroying thousands of homes and wreaking widespread destruction.
Today, about 325,000 people rendered homeless remain in temporary housing. While much of the debris has been gathered into massive piles, very little rebuilding has begun.
"I wish I could go back to my old house and get back our normal life again," said Hyakuaiko Konno, a 64-year-old woman from the Ishinomaki coast who has been living in temporary housing for the past seven months.
The government says the damaged Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant, where three reactor cores melted down after the tsunami knocked out their vital cooling systems, is stable and that radiation coming from the plant has subsided significantly. However, the plant's chief told journalists visiting the complex recently that it remains in a fragile state, and makeshift equipment — some mended with tape — could be seen keeping crucial systems running.
An anti-nuclear protest was also planned in downtown Tokyo on Sunday amid growing public opposition to atomic power in the wake of the disaster, the worst since Chornobyl in 1986.
Only two of Japan's 54 reactors are now running while those shut down for regular inspections undergo special tests to check their ability to withstand similar disasters. They could all go offline by the end of April if none are restarted before then.
The Japanese government has pledged to reduce reliance on nuclear power, which supplied about 30 per cent of the nation's energy needs before the disaster, but says it needs to restart some nuclear plants to meet Japan's energy needs during the transition period.
Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda has acknowledged failures in the government's response to the disaster, being too slow in relaying key information and believing too much in "a myth of safety" about nuclear power.
"We can no longer make the excuse that what was unpredictable and outside our imagination has happened," Noda told a group of reporters last weekend. "Crisis management requires us to imagine what may be outside our imagination."
The phrase soteigai ("outside our imagination") was used repeatedly by Tokyo Electric Power Co., the utility that runs the Fukushima plant, as the reason it was not prepared for the giant tsunami. Although some scholars had warned about such tsunami risks, both the utility and regulators did little to prepare for such an event, and kept backup generators in basements vulnerable to flooding.
"We can say in hindsight that the government, business and scholars had all been seeped in a myth of safety," Noda said of the oversights in the accident. "The responsibility must be shared."
Enormous risks and challenges lie ahead at the Fukushima plant, including removal of the melted nuclear fuel from the core and the disposal of spent fuel rods. Completely decommissioning the plant could take 40 years. Meanwhile, about 100,000 residents who lived around the plant are in temporary shelters or with relatives, unsure of when they will be able to return to their homes.
A 20-kilometre zone around the complex and an adjacent area remains off limits.
Pilot efforts to make radiation-contaminated land around the plant habitable again have begun, using everything from shovels and high-powered water guns to chemicals that absorb radiation.
But it is a monumental, costly project fraught with uncertainty, and experts cannot guarantee it will be successful. The Environment Ministry expects it will generate at least 100 million cubic metres of soil, enough to fill 80 domed baseball stadiums.