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Revisiting Japan's Fukushima Nuclear Disaster, 10 Years Later

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

Ten years ago today, a massive earthquake and tsunami devastated northeastern Japan. Nearly 20,000 people were killed. Entire towns were destroyed. The disaster triggered multiple explosions at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, sending radioactive material into the air. It was the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The power plant was built near a town called Okuma. NPR's Kat Lonsdorf went back last year.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

KAZUKO ENDO: (Through interpreter) There are only old people here, which I guess includes me (laughter). What young family would want to live here? Any school, hospital or grocery store is miles away.

MARTIN: That's resident Kazuko Endo, who Lonsdorf met gardening outside one of Okuma's newly built homes. Over the past few years, Okuma has slowly started to open back up after sitting empty for years. Less than 200 people now live in the town that used to be home to over 11,000.

DETROW: One person who moved back to Okuma - Masaato Saki. He's nearly 100. The construction company he owned helped build several of the nuclear reactors at Daiichi.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

MASAATO SAKI: (Through interpreter) This town needed nuclear. We coexisted with it, and I profited from it. But now look at the town. We'll never be the same.

DETROW: The old downtown Okuma is still abandoned, and Japan's government is still figuring out how to completely clean up Fukushima's damaged reactors. Alastair Gale covers Japan for The Wall Street Journal. He's gone back to the region over and over in the decade since the disaster. Gale's latest trip found a mix of massive engineering and empty streets.

ALASTAIR GALE: So I went with a colleague to the city of Rikuzentakata, which was one of the worst hit cities by the tsunami in 2011. It's on the northeast coast of Japan. And it's a place that takes a while to get to. There's a lot of mountains in that prefecture, and you have to cross over the mountains to get into it. They've basically rebuilt their city over the last 10 years. So the infrastructure is all there. But it really felt like there weren't many people around. And part of that was because of COVID. But really, it's because, you know, and the main part that a lot of people have just left that city.

DETROW: Yeah. You wrote that 7% of the population died in the immediate devastation. Others fled or just never returned or, after a certain point, you know, moved on.

GALE: Yeah. You know, as you say, 7% of the population were killed. And of course, thousands of others had to move into temporary housing or moved away from the city. So a lot of those people decided to stay away. The city has really only just been finished. You know, we spoke to the mayor there, and he said we kind of messed this up because it took us so long to rebuild the city that people decided, look - our long-term future is elsewhere. And part of the reason it took so long is they raised the city by about 20 feet - the central area because it's on the coast there.

DETROW: How do you raise a city?

GALE: It's an incredible engineering project. What they did is they removed the top of a nearby mountain, and they set up this huge conveyer belt system where they brought in soil and gravel and rock from the mountain and poured it into the middle of the city and basically leveled it over. And then they built, you know, roads and buildings on top of that. And that was - you know, that's part of the way to try and protect the city from future tsunamis in addition to this 40-foot seawall, which they built right around the bay there.

DETROW: And all of this must have been a massive investment, wasn't it?

GALE: That's right. I mean, this whole reconstruction process has been funded from a new tax on people in Japan. And the individual taxpayers have paid over $2,000 each towards rebuilding this area of Japan. And the total cost of rebuilding that the government has contributed towards is about 300 billion U.S. dollars.

DETROW: Did you get a sense of the feeling of the people that you talked to who did decide to live there or have recently moved back - how they view this anniversary, how they view life now?

GALE: Most people there know someone or had a family member who was killed by this, so it's obviously a deeply personal moment for them. Every anniversary is. We spoke to a guy who's in his 20s who's recently moved back there to work on his grandparents' farm, and his father was killed in the tsunami. And he told us about how they were going to go to the family grave, and they would reflect. But he said, you know, they would do that briefly, and then they would get on. And I think after 10 years, people have to sort of be thinking more about the future whilst obviously not forgetting what's happened in the past. And that's - that weighs on them. But you get the feeling that people want to move on from this.

DETROW: Alastair Gale, the Japan editor for The Wall Street Journal. Thanks for joining us.

GALE: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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