Some Bright Spots Amid Worries in Japan’s Quake Recovery

BY Larisa Epatko  May 13, 2011 at 9:50 AM EDT

Parents walk to Okawa elementary school to pray for missing children in the tsunami-hit city of Ishinomaki, Miyagi prefecture on May 11. (Toshifumi Kitamura/AFP/Getty Images)

This week, the first group of 100 people were allowed to return to their homes within the restricted zone circling the damaged Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant in Japan and retrieve some of their cherished possessions.

They were escorted in on government buses and given protective suits, goggles and masks to wear, along with personal radiation monitors and walkie-talkies. They could take as many of their clothes, children’s toys, trinkets and valuables that would fit into distributed plastic bags. Afterward, everyone and everything was screened for radiation exposure.

The groups, made up of one person per household, will continue to return over the next few weeks. But when they will be able to return permanently is still up in the air — one of the many unanswered questions following the earthquake and tsunami that shattered northeastern Japan on March 11.

About 130,000 people are still living in evacuation centers. The weather is warming since they were first displaced two months ago, which is helping improve conditions, and supplies are flowing in from nongovernmental organizations, said Justin McCurry, GlobalPost reporter in Tokyo.

But getting people into temporary housing is posing a massive challenge. The government says it needs 70,000 units for the displaced, and will have them ready by the end of August, but the pre-fabricated units are taking longer to build than expected and the government might miss that self-imposed deadline, McCurry said.

Another problem is where to put the temporary homes. “Obviously, they’re not going to rebuild in the areas hit by the tsunami because they’re still a complete mess, and I don’t think many people would want to live there anyway,” McCurry said. So people are looking for areas on higher ground.

There are other long-term questions, such as what the effects on the local economy will be. The fishing industry is struggling to get back on its feet, as is the farming industry, said McCurry. And Japanese exporters face the problem of countries stopping their goods at ports if radiation is detected.

As for the damaged nuclear reactors, workers this week accessed the No. 1 reactor at the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant for the first time since the earthquake, and found damages worse than previously thought. In response to the country’s nuclear issues, Prime Minister Naoto Kan has halted plans to build 14 reactors over the next 20 years and directed Chubu Electric Power Co. to shut down its Hamaoka nuclear plant, which it agreed to do starting Friday. The Hamaoka facility, located 118 miles from Tokyo, was built on an active fault line and people had been warning about its risky location even before the March quake, said McCurry.

When the inoperable nuclear plants threatened to shrink power supplies, the government warned of possible rolling blackouts and people stepped up their energy conservation measures — “one of the few bright spots amid all the misery and destruction,” he noted. Residents began shutting off lights and televisions in unused rooms, and businesses also made some changes.

“I’ve just been to my local convenience store and they don’t light the shelves as brightly as they used to,” McCurry said. “Shopping centers have switched off escalators and revolving doors. It’s a minor inconvenience at most, but it seems to have done the trick, because those rolling blackouts didn’t happen.”

In the humid summer, however, use of air conditioners might tax electricity supplies, but people will again be encouraged to curb their use, something Japan has done for a few years now anyway to reduce its CO2 emissions, he added.

In general, he said, the initial shock people felt from the tsunami has evolved into perseverance as they came together and began gearing up for the long haul toward recovery.

“I think people are just beginning to look forward as well as rebuilding both physically and mentally and deciding what they and their families are going to do in the next few years and the next few decades,” he said.

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