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12th Anniversary of Japan’s Earthquake, Tsunami and Nuclear Disaster Remembered

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Japan on Saturday marked the 12th anniversary of the massive earthquake and deadly tsunami that caused the Fukushima disaster with a minute of silence as public support for nuclear power grows as memories of the 2011 meltdown fade.

The magnitude 9.0 earthquake and tsunami that devastated large parts of the northeastern coast of Japan on March 11, 2011 killed more than 22,000 people, including about 3,700 whose subsequent deaths were linked to the disaster.

There was a moment of silence across the country at 2:46 pm, the moment the earthquake struck.

Some residents in the northern tsunami-hit prefectures of Iwate and Miyagi took to the coast to pray for their loved ones and 2,519 people whose remains have not been found.

In Tomioka, a city in Fukushima, where initial searches had to be abandoned due to radiation, firefighters and police are using sticks and hoees to navigate the coast in search of possible remains or belongings of the victims.

At an elementary school in Sendai, Miyagi Prefecture, north of Fukushima, participants released hundreds of colorful balloons in memory of the lives lost.

In Tokyo, dozens of people gathered for the anniversary event in a downtown park, and anti-nuclear activists held a rally.

The earthquake and tsunami that struck the coastal Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant destroyed power and cooling functions, causing meltdowns in three of its six reactors. They released massive amounts of radiation causing tens of thousands of residents to evacuate.

More than 160,000 people have left at one point, and about 30,000 are still unable to return due to long-term radioactive effects or health concerns. Many of the evacuees have already been resettled elsewhere, and most of the affected cities have seen significant population declines over the past decade.

At a ceremony, Fukushima Governor Masao Oshibori said decontamination and reconstruction had made progress, but “we still face many difficult problems.” He said many people are still leaving and the province is burdened by plant clean-ups and rumors about the effects of the upcoming release of treated water.

Tokyo Electric Power Holdings Corporation, the plant’s operator, and the government are making final preparations to release more than 1.3 million tons of treated radioactive water into the sea, starting in the coming months.

It is safe to control the release of water after treatment to safe levels over several decades, the government says, but many residents as well as China, South Korea and neighboring Pacific island nations dispute this. Fishing communities are particularly interested in the reputation of the local fish and their still-recovering business.

In his speech last week, Oshibori urged the government to do its best to prevent negative rumors about the water leak from further damaging Fukushima’s image.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida renewed his pledge to support the ongoing reconstruction efforts.

“The discharge of the treated water is a step that cannot be postponed,” Kishida told reporters after the ceremony. He reiterated an earlier pledge that “the release will not take place without the stakeholders’ understanding.”

The Kishida government has reversed the nuclear phase-out policy adopted in the aftermath of the 2011 disaster, and is instead pushing a plan to maximize the use of nuclear power to address energy supply concerns raised by Russia’s war on Ukraine while meeting decarbonization requirements.

Oshibori’s goal is to boost renewable energy supply to 100% of Fukushima Prefecture’s needs by 2040. He said last week that while energy policy is the central government’s mandate, he wants it to remember that Fukushima is still reeling from the nuclear disaster.

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