Japan Recovery Slowed by Aftershocks, Nuke Fears

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Damir Sagolj / Reuters

The daughter of an earthquake-and-tsunami victim cries over her mother's coffin during a mass funeral procession at a field outside Kesennuma town, Miyagi prefecture, on March 27, 2011

More than two weeks after the unprecedented triple disaster of monster quake, killer tsunami and nuclear crisis struck Japan, the enormity of the catastrophe is becoming clearer. Some 27,000 people are confirmed dead or missing, with more than 2,000 bodies recovered from the sea. About 240,000 are homeless, sheltered in about 1,900 evacuation centers spread mainly across the devastated northeast but also in cities like Tokyo. While aid is reaching ever more of those affected, it is insufficient and too slow. Most of the displaced do not have homes or jobs to return to. The government estimates the cost at $300 billion, which would make it the most expensive natural disaster on record.

Yet Japan is unable to focus on recovery. On Monday morning, March 28, Miyagi prefecture, the worst hit, was shaken by a 6.5-magnitude offshore earthquake that caused a small tsunami (about 0.5 m high). Thankfully, no injuries or damage were reported. More important, the nation and places beyond remain under threat from the stricken reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Yukiya Amano, director-general of the Geneva-based International Atomic Energy Agency, told the New York Times the emergency could go on for weeks and possibly even months: "This is a very serious accident by all standards, and it is not over yet."

The latest danger is a high level of radioactivity in pools of water in the complex. As of Sunday, March 27, authorities were unable to pinpoint where the radioactive water was coming from and so were unable to stop it. Compounding the problem: an increase in radiation in the air, which has forced the on-and-off evacuation of workers trying to keep the facility from overheating. Concern is mounting that at least one containment vessel for fuel rods may have been breached.

At a press conference Sunday, a spokesman for the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), the utility that runs Fukushima Daiichi, and government officials said water from the No. 2 reactor turbine building had levels of radiation 10 million times higher than normal. Tests on the surface of a pool of water showed more than 1,000 millisieverts (mSv) per hour, four times the safety level. (A single dose of 1,000 mSv causes radiation-sickness symptoms such as nausea and vomiting; a single dose of 5,000 mSv would kill about half of those receiving it within a month.) Workers were evacuated from the reactor building. Later in the day, TEPCO officials admitted that the number was a miscalculation and that the radiation level was actually 100,000 times above normal — still high, but better than previous results.

Shintaro Matsumoto, an official at Japan's Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, said this was the highest figure measured in the six-reactor unit since it lost vital cooling functions following the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. Hidehiko Nishiyama, a spokesman for the agency, said, "There is a strong possibility that the water is from the reactor core." Japanese authorities have extended the evacuation zone around the crippled plant from a 20-km to a 30-km radius.

The problems at the plant are having a wider impact. Last week, unsafe radiation levels were found in tap water as far away as Tokyo, 220 km south of the Fukushima plants, prompting a one-day ban on consumption by infants and a rush on bottled water. Fears about food safety are growing. Milk and leafy vegetables from the Fukushima region have been banned both nationally and abroad. Shops across Japan are displaying signs indicating that their items are not from the northeast. The U.S. last week became the first country to ban the import of milk and some vegetables from the contaminated areas. On Friday, South Korea and Taiwan joined the growing list, which also includes Singapore and Australia.

Food producers in the region have been hit hard by the damage to infrastructure. Ken Sasaki had to cull 30,000 egg-laying chickens at his farm in Hachinohe because of a feed shortage — his flock required more than 30 tons a day. "Almost all our feed is imported," says Sasaki. "Most of it is transported here by ship, but our ports were badly damaged." The resulting egg shortage has driven up prices 40% in Tokyo.

Automakers such as Toyota, Nissan, Mazda and Mitsubishi are also feeling an economic pinch, as parts produced in the northeast are in short supply. Japan-based Renesas Electronics, the world's largest maker of microcontrollers — chips used to control electronic operations in cars — is down 70% in output. Five of the company's plants are in the affected areas. "At this point, we don't know when we can go back to normal production," says Renesas spokeswoman Makie Uehara.

The government estimates the impact of interrupted factory output of autos, electronics, chemicals and other high-volume industries to be $3 billion. But the real cost may be much higher if discretionary spending on such things as entertainment, health, sports, apparel, beauty and travel is taken into account. A Japanese goal for 2011 was to attract 11 million foreign tourists, especially a growing number from China. But the number of incoming travelers passing through Tokyo's Narita airport plummeted 60% from March 11 to March 22. "One of the big problems has been the foreign-government warnings against travel to Tokyo and the northern areas," says Tyler Palma of Inside Japan, a U.K.-based tour company. "This automatically invalidates travel insurance." Without travel insurance, tour companies cannot legally operate. "We've started bringing a few tours through Osaka airport instead, with the focus on Kyoto and western Japan."

Kyoto's geisha quarters at this time of year are usually readying for the cherry-blossom-season bustle of customers. But teahouse owner Harumi laments, "Just about all our April reservations have been canceled. I don't think I've ever seen it this bad before." Customers tell her they would rather spend money on relief efforts than a vacation, so she has decided to sponsor a charity event with the help of other geisha and a local tour guide.

On Sunday, though, it was hard to fathom the crises Japan faces amid the sea of young shoppers in the megapopular fashion retail store Forever 21, in Tokyo's Shibuya district. "Business is back to prequake levels," said the floor manager, busy balancing hangers and discount price tags. Will it last? His smiling face turned serious as he replied, "I'm really hoping."