JAPAN MOURNS 2011 FUKUSHIMA DISASTER AS NUCLEAR SUPPORT GROWS
"Mourner offer prayers for victims of the Great East Japan Earthquake in front of a memorial monument at a cemetery in Namie, Fukushima Prefecture, northern Japan, 11 March 2023, on the 12th anniversary of the earthquake."
TOKYO, JAPAN: Japanese offered tearful prayers Saturday on the anniversary of the deadly tsunami that triggered the Fukushima disaster, but public support for nuclear power is growing as memories of the 2011 meltdown fade.
The 9.0-magnitude quake -- the fourth strongest in Earth's recorded history -- devastated northeastern Japan 12 years ago.
The undersea quake unleashed a tsunami that left around 18,500 people dead or missing and overwhelmed cooling systems at the Fukushima Daiichi plant, leading to the worst nuclear catastrophe since Chernobyl.
All of Japan's nuclear reactors were taken offline after the disaster and the majority remain out of action today.
But the global energy crisis sparked by the war in Ukraine has caused electricity bills to soar in Japan, inspiring a government push to reboot reactors as polls show that public views on nuclear power are softening.
On Saturday, TV footage showed people who lost loved ones to the tsunami laying flowers, offering tearful prayers and bowing in front of graves.
"Hi guys, it's been 12 years," public broadcaster NHK showed Fumiko Sugawara, 73, telling the grave of her family members, including her husband.
"We're surviving, so please watch over us," said the resident of Kesennuma, a city flattened when huge waves rushed ashore.
No deaths have been directly ascribed to the nuclear accident, after which around 165,000 people fled their homes in the area either under evacuation orders or voluntarily.
Most areas around the plant have since been declared safe after extensive decontamination work, but many former residents have chosen not to return.
With Japan now facing its most severe energy crunch in decades, the government wants to speed up the revival of its nuclear industry.
Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has called for seven reactors approved by Japan's nuclear safety watchdog to resume operations, and for the nation to consider building "next-generation" reactors with new safety mechanisms.
The public appears to back the plans. Recent opinion polls by major newspapers the Asahi Shimbun and Yomiuri Shimbun show that a majority of people support the plan for the first time since 2011.
Mistrust of nuclear power still runs deep among campaigners who accuse TEPCO, the operator of the Fukushima plant, of safety lapses that upended local communities.
In January, Tokyo's High Court maintained the acquittal of three former TEPCO executives, again clearing them of professional negligence over the disaster.
But in a separate civil verdict last year, the trio -- plus one other ex-official -- were ordered to pay a whopping 13.3 trillion yen ($97 billion) for failing to prevent the accident.
The enormous compensation sum is believed to be the largest ever for a Japanese civil case, although lawyers acknowledge it is well beyond the defendants' capacity to pay.
The government also plans to start releasing more than a million tonnes of treated water from the stricken Fukushima plant into the sea this year.
The liquid -- a combination of groundwater, rainwater that seeps into the area, and water used for cooling -- is filtered to remove various radionuclides and kept in storage tanks on site, but space is running out.
The water release plan has been endorsed by the International Atomic Energy Agency but faces staunch resistance from local fishing communities and neighbouring countries.
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