EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

April 11, 2011

Somber ceremonies mark month since tsunami


RIKUZENTAKATA, Japan (AP) — Somber ceremonies and moments of silence were planned today to mark one month since a massive earthquake and tsunami devastated Japan's northeast coast, killing as many as 25,000 people.

But with thousands of bodies yet to be found, a tsunami-flooded nuclear power plant still spewing radiation and more than 150,000 people living in shelters, there was little time for reflection on Japan's worst disaster since World War II.

"We offer our deepest condolences to those who lost their loved ones," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano said today at a brief news conference where he pledged the government would do whatever it could to help survivors and end the nuclear crisis. "We are sorry for causing inconvenience and difficulties to those who still live in shelters."

The 9.0-magnitude earthquake and the tsunami it generated flattened communities along hundreds of miles (kilometers) of coastline. The government has estimated the cost of damages from the disaster could grow to $310 billion.

Frustrations are running particularly high among people like Atsushi Yanai, a 55-year-old construction worker forced to live in a shelter not because his home was destroyed but because it is within a 12-mile (20-kilometer) evacuation zone around the crippled Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant. Government officials have ordered people out of the zone because of radiation concerns, and those farther from the plant may also be told to leave as the crisis drags on.

"We have no future plans. We can't even start to think about it because we don't know how long this will last or how long we will have to stay in these shelters," Yanai said. "This is what is so hard for us."

Ahead of the anniversary, nuclear safety official Hidehiko Nishiyama apologized for the worry and inconvenience caused by the radiation spilling from the plant, where cooling systems disabled by the March 11 tsunami still have not been restored and likely won't be for several months.

"We've done all we could to come this far," Nishiyama said Sunday. "Unfortunately, we still cannot give any timeline for when we can move on to the next phase, but we are hoping to achieve a sustainable cooling system, contain radiation and bring the situation under control as soon as possible."

Plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co. reiterated Sunday that it is not considering entombing the hot reactors in concrete, as was done at Chernobyl in 1986 when a reactor fire burned out of control. Japan's nuclear crisis is the world's worst since then.

The crisis has sparked several anti-nuclear protests, but one of the largest took place Sunday in a Tokyo neighborhood where many students live. Thousands of people carrying "No nukes" signs gathered for a rally and then marched through the streets chanting and beating drums.

Elsewhere in the capital, about 140 miles (220 kilometers) southwest of Fukushima Dai-ichi, protesters demanding the closure of a different plant chanted "No more Fukushima" as they marched through government headquarters and past the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency.

Sunday also saw Japanese and U.S. troops fan out along the coast for another all-out search for bodies by land, air and sea.

Television news showed them using heavy equipment to lift a boat washed inland by the tsunami so they could search a crushed car underneath. No one was inside.

The Japanese military said today that U.S. and Japanese troops found 103 bodies during the one-day operation, more than the 70 they located during a three-day push with even more troops a week ago.

Just 13,000 deaths have been confirmed so far, and many bodies have likely washed out to sea and will never be found.

Some families who had been living in shelters were able to take a tentative step toward normalcy over the weekend, moving into boxy, gray temporary houses lined up in a junior high school parking lot in the port city of Rikuzentakata.

Each unit is just 320 square feet (30 square meters), but replete with modern comforts such as televisions, refrigerators, microwaves and washing machines — a welcome upgrade for the homeless, many of whom have slept on the floors of school gyms for a month.

So far there are 36 houses — just one for every 50 applicants. A lottery decided who got to move in.

"It's a mystery how we were lucky enough to be chosen. It's like a dream," said Sakai Sasaki, 80, who had been living with relatives.

The city hopes to complete 400 units in eight different locations by mid-May, although that will still cover only about one-quarter of the families in need. Other areas have similar plans, but Rikuzentakata's units are the first to be completed.

"When you think of the feelings of the evacuees, we want to build them even a day faster, or make just one unit more," said Saeki Suga, an official in charge of the housing plan for the city.

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Associated Press writers Eric Talmadge in Fukushima, Jay Alabaster in Rikuzentakata, Mari Yamaguchi and Mayumi Saito and television news producer Miles Edelsten in Tokyo contributed to this report.