3.11 EXPLORING FUKUSHIMA: This feature is part of an original Milwaukee Independent editorial series that documented the 13th anniversary of the "Great East Japan Earthquake," tsunami, and nuclear accident, including the conditions of both the people and places that remain affected by the disaster across the Tōhoku region. mkeind.com/exploringfukushima

Japan marked 13 years since a massive earthquake and tsunami hit the country’s northern coasts on March 13, 2024.

Nearly 20,000 people died, whole towns were wiped out and the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant was destroyed, creating deep fears of radiation that continue to linger. While the nation observed the anniversary, developments continued at the plant and in neighboring areas.


A magnitude 9.0 earthquake struck on March 11, 2011, causing a tsunami that battered northern coastal towns in Iwate, Miyagi, and Fukushima prefectures. The tsunami, which topped 50 feet in some areas, slammed into the nuclear plant, destroying its power supply and fuel cooling systems, and causing meltdowns at reactors No. 1, 2, and 3.

Hydrogen explosions caused massive radiation leaks and contamination in the area.

The operator, Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings, says that the tsunami could not have been anticipated. Government and independent investigations and some court decisions have said the accident was the result of human error, safety negligence, lax oversight by regulators and collusion.

Japan has since introduced stricter safety standards and at one point shifted to a nuclear energy phaseout. Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s government reversed that policy and has accelerated restarts of workable reactors to maintain nuclear power as a main source of Japan’s power supply.

A deadly January 1 earthquake in Japan’s northcentral region destroyed many homes and roads but did not damage an idled nuclear power plant. Even so, it caused worry that current evacuation plans that solely focus on radiation leaks could be unworkable.

The nation marked a moment of silence at 14:46, with Kishida attending a memorial in Fukushima.


About 20,000 of more than 160,000 evacuated residents across Fukushima still have not returned home.

Decontamination work before the Tokyo Olympics meant to showcase Fukushima’s recovery led to the elimination of some no-go zones, but they remain in seven of 12 towns that had been fully or partially off-limits.

In Futaba, the hardest-hit town and a co-host of the Fukushima Daiichi plant, a small area was opened in 2022. About 100 people, or 1.5% percent of the pre-disaster population, have returned to live. The other host town, Okuma, which along with Futaba sacrificed part of its land to build an interim storage site for nuclear waste gathered from the decontamination, has seen 6% of its former residents return.

Annual surveys show the majority of evacuees have no intention of returning home, citing lack of jobs, schools, and lost communities, as well as radiation concerns.

Residents who have raised radiation worries or linked it to their health problems have come under attack for hurting Fukushima’s reputation.

The disaster-hit towns, including those in Iwate and Miyagi prefectures, have seen sharp population drops.

Fukushima Governor Masao Uchibori said on NHK TV that a growing number of young people want to move to Fukushima to open businesses or help in the reconstruction, and he expressed hope that more residents will return.


Last August, Fukushima Daiichi began discharging treated water into the sea, and is currently releasing a fourth 7,800-ton batch of treated water. So far, daily seawater sampling results have met safety standards. The plan has faced protests from local fishers and neighboring countries, especially China, which has banned Japanese seafood imports.

Fukushima Daiichi has struggled to handle the contaminated water since the 2011 meltdowns. TEPCO says the start of the process is a milestone and removing the tanks is crucial to make space for facilities needed as decommissioning progresses.

The contaminated cooling water is pumped up, treated and stored in about 1,000 tanks. The government and TEPCO say the water is diluted with massive seawater before release, making it safer than international standards.


Despite earlier fears that the water discharge would further hurt Fukushima’s hard-hit fishing industry, they have not damaged its reputation domestically. China’s ban on Japanese seafood, which mostly hit scallop exporters in Hokkaido, apparently prompted Japanese consumers to eat more Fukushima seafood.

Sampling and monitoring by the International Atomic Energy Agency have also boosted confidence in local fish. The government has earmarked $680 million to support Fukushima fisheries.

Fukushima fishing returned to normal operations in 2021, and the local catch is now about one-fifth of its pre-disaster level because of a decline in the fishing population and smaller catch sizes.


The contents of the three reactors is still largely a mystery. Little is known, for instance, about the melted fuel’s condition or exactly where it is located in the reactors. Not even a spoonful of the fuel has been removed.

About 880 tons of melted nuclear fuel remain inside the three damaged reactors, and Japanese officials say removing it would take 30-40 years. Experts call that timeline overly optimistic. The amount of melted fuel is 10 times that removed from Three Mile Island following its 1979 partial core melt.

Robotic probes have glimpsed inside the three reactors, but their investigation has been hampered by technical glitches, high radiation and other complications.

It is crucial for officials to understand the data from melted debris so they can make a plan to remove it safely. TEPCO aims to get the first sample out later this year from the least-damaged No. 2 reactor.

TEPCO has been trying to get the sample by using a robotic arm. Officials have struggled to get the robot past the wreckage, and hope that by October they can use a simpler device that looks like a fishing rod.

The fuel in the worst-damaged No. 1 reactor mostly fell from the core to the bottom of its primary containment vessel. Some of it penetrated and mixed with the concrete foundation, making removal extremely difficult.

In February, the plant made its first drone flight into the primary containment vessel to investigate the melted debris and examine how the fuel initially fell from the core. But a second day of exploration was canceled because a data transmission robot failed.


The government has stuck to its initial target for a completed decommissioning by 2051, but it has not defined what that means.

The lack of data, technology, and plans on what to do with the radioactive melted fuel and other nuclear waste makes it difficult to understand what’s in store for the plant and surrounding areas when the cleanup ends, according to TEPCO’s decommissioning company chief, Akira Ono.

An overly ambitious schedule could result in unnecessary radiation exposure for plant workers and excess environmental damage, experts said.

3.11 Exploring Fukushima

Mari Yamaguchi and MI Staff (Japan)

Lее Mаtz

Hiro Komae (AP), Fumine Tsutabayashi (AP), and Hiro Komae (AP)

3.11 Exploring Fukushima: The Tōhoku region of Japan experienced one of the worst natural disasters ever recorded when a powerful earthquake was followed by a massive tsunami, and triggered an unprecedented nuclear crisis in 2011. With a personal connection to the tragedies, Milwaukee Independent returned for the first time in 13 years to attend events commemorating the March 11 anniversary. The purpose of the journalism project included interviews with survivors about their challenges over the past decade, reviews of rebuilt cities that had been washed away by the ocean, and visits to newly opened areas that had been left barren by radiation. This special editorial series offers a detailed look at a situation that will continue to have a daily global impact for generations. mkeind.com/exploringfukushima