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Repairing Damage And Public Trust 10 Years After Japan's Triple Disaster

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Today, Japan held commemorations to mark 10 years since the triple calamity of a massive earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown struck the Fukushima area. NPR's Anthony Kuhn looks back at the event and its impact on the nation.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Japanese).

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: It was 2:46 in the afternoon when public broadcaster NHK interrupted coverage of a parliamentary hearing with an emergency earthquake warning.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Japanese).

(SOUNDBITE OF CHIME)

KUHN: Then prime minister, Naoto Kan, recalls that he was answering lawmakers' questions.

NAOTO KAN: (Through interpreter) The chandeliers on the ceiling shook hard. I remember I was looking up at them, thinking they might fall on people and hurt them.

KUHN: Kan headed to his office. He heard that the magnitude 9.0 quake and tsunami that followed had knocked out power at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant on Japan's northeast coast.

KAN: (Through interpreter) A chill went down my spine. I knew that when a nuclear plant loses all power, it can't be cooled and a meltdown will take place.

KUHN: Over the next few days, three of Fukushima's six reactors suffered meltdowns. Kan recalls envisioning a worst-case scenario involving a Japanese science fiction novel.

KAN: (Through interpreter) There is a story in which all of Japan sinks into the ocean after an earthquake, and all the people have to flee to other countries. I thought that if the damage from the nuclear accident expanded, we might have to evacuate Japan, too.

KUHN: The day after the quake brought more bad news. Naoto Kan was in a meeting when...

KAN: (Through interpreter) My secretary rushed into the room and said, Mr. Prime Minister, please turn on the television. So I turned it on and saw reactor number one exploding.

KUHN: Three explosions caused by built up hydrogen damaged the buildings housing the reactors, but didn't destroy them. The evacuation of Tokyo that some had feared never happened. Kan later ordered all of Japan's nuclear reactors shut down. On the day of the quake, Katsutaka Idogawa, mayor of the town of Futaba, where two of Fukushima's six reactors are located, had just started driving in his car.

KATSUTAKA IDOGAWA: (Through interpreter) I felt like my tire had a flat. I pulled over, and the quake started. It wasn't that bad at first, but then the car started bouncing, and I had to hold onto the steering wheel to keep from flying up and down.

KUHN: Later, Idogawa watched helplessly from the fourth floor of his town hall as the tsunami swept inland, obliterating neighboring communities. Idogawa says that when he became mayor, he vowed never to allow Futaba's residents to suffer through a nuclear accident. But the day after the quake, Idogawa felt anguished that he hadn't kept his promise.

IDOGAWA: (Through interpreter) There was a sound - boom. The sky grew dark, and bits of insulation from the plant started to fall from the sky.

KUHN: With radiation levels in Futaba dangerously high, Idogawa led his people on an exodus south towards Tokyo. He says nuclear safety inspectors and power plant bosses used to tell him laughingly that a nuclear accident could never happen.

IDOGAWA: (Through interpreter) So when radiation fell on the 12th, I didn't show it, but the anger in my mind was tremendous. I thought I caused this. I couldn't protect my people, although I had promised myself I would. Nobody can understand my regret.

KUHN: Idogawa didn't believe that nuclear power plants were safe. But Northwestern University anthropologist Hirokazu Miyazaki says many other Japanese did.

HIROKAZU MIYAZAKI: That nation as a whole was led to believe that nuclear energy was safe. So that also led to the belief that safety measures put in place was adequate.

KUHN: He says repairing the damage from the Fukushima disaster will take generations. Japan plans to get about one-fifth of its energy from nuclear plants by 2030. Therefore, he says, Japan must think seriously about how it will deal with the next nuclear disaster should that ever occur.

MIYAZAKI: We were not prepared then, and we are not prepared now.

KUHN: Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Seoul.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.