TOKYO – Protesters in Tokyo held mass demonstrations Saturday against the use of nuclear power, as Japan marked the three-month anniversary of the powerful earthquake and tsunami that killed tens of thousands and triggered one of the world’s worst nuclear disasters.
The magnitude-9 earthquake that hit off Japan’s northeast coast March 11 caused a massive tsunami that devastated the coastline. The disasters knocked out power and cooling systems at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant, about 140 miles (225 kilometers) northeast of Tokyo, setting off explosions, fires and large radiation leaks at the facility.
Government reports released earlier in the week said the damage and leakage were worse than previously thought, with nuclear fuel in three reactors likely melting through their main cores and larger containment vessels. Radiation that leaked into the air amounted to about one-sixth of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986 – double previous estimates.
Hundreds of plant workers are still scrambling to bring the crippled Fukushima reactors to a “cold shutdown” by early next year and end the crisis. The accident has forced more than 80,000 residents to evacuate from their homes around the plant.
The disasters have renewed a national debate on the use of nuclear power in Japan, which has few natural resources and is heavily reliant on atomic energy. Some nuclear plants across the country have been shut down in the wake of the disaster, leading to fears Japan may not have enough electricity for the peak summer months, and repeated anti-nuclear protests have been held.
Protests were held across Tokyo on Saturday. In the center of the city, at a park next to the iconic Tokyo Tower, demonstrators gathered in a muddy field, wearing signs and carrying colorful banners with phrases such as “Immediately stop all use of nuclear power and shut down the plants.”
The crowd poured out into the streets of the city in orderly rows, banging drums and shouting anti-nuclear slogans while walking toward the Economy Ministry and the head offices of Tokyo Electric Power Co., which operates the Fukushima plant. Police estimated 2,000 people took part in the protest.
“Since the earthquake, I’ve realized that nuclear power is just too dangerous for use,” said Takeshi Terada, 32, a local shipping worker who came with 10 friends to march in the protest.
While many in the Tokyo protests were from large organizations that have previously supported issues such as anti-war legislation and women’s rights, some arrived in small groups with their families. Children and even dogs walked in clothing with anti-nuclear slogans.
“I’m worried about the children. It’s not just in Fukushima, there are radiation problems even here in Tokyo,” said Mika Obuchi, 45, who marched with her husband and 9-year-old daughter.
Three months after the disasters, which killed about 23,000 people, 90,000 are still living in temporary shelters such as school gyms and community centers. Some families have been moved into temporary housing, but supplies are short and sufficient housing is not expected to be completed for several more months.
All along the coast, a massive cleanup effort continues as cranes and dump trucks haul away the wreckage from hundreds of thousands of buildings that were destroyed or damaged by the tsunami.
Also Saturday, embattled Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan was scheduled to visit a tsunami-damaged region in northern Iwate prefecture (state).
Kan, who reached the one-year mark of his tenure earlier this week, has been under fire for his handling of the disasters and the country’s recovery plans. He survived a no-confidence vote earlier this month, in part by promising to step down once the country’s recovery takes hold.
Speculation about when he will step down has been rampant since, with Japan’s two main opposition parties considering a grand coalition to lead the country’s recovery. Kan is Japan’s fifth leader in four years.