A Month After the Earthquake, the Crisis Continues and the Questions Mount

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Athit Perawongmetha / Getty Images

A Buddhist monk chants for unidentified victims of Japan's earthquake and tsunami during a mass funeral on April 8, 2011, in Yamamoto, Miyagi prefecture

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The same day, China expanded its ban on Japanese produce and food from 12 prefectures in the vicinity of the plant, joining the U.S., South Korea, Russia, Taiwan and Singapore in banning imports from the stricken area. Meanwhile, as Japan has started dumping low-level radioactive water directly into the ocean (a process that was scheduled to stop on Sunday), many more nations have balked at putting Japanese seafood on their table, regardless of where it came from.

Last week, Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) announced a plan to make token payments to farmers and residents in nine communities around the plant by the end of the month. The offer was made to 10 towns, but one — Namie, with a population of about 20,000 — has already refused to take the handout. Though TEPCO itself did not confirm the amount it would offer each city, a Namie city official told CNN that it was around $240,000 — about $12 for each of Namie's residents. Tamotsu Baba, Namie's mayor, told the network that they were rejecting the money on principle. "Where's our direct apology?" he asked. After Japan's National Federation of Fisheries Cooperatives Associations issued an unsparing statement expressing fishermen's anger at not being consulted in TEPCO's "unforgivable" decision to dump toxic water into the sea, the government announced that fishermen, too, would be included in the compensation scheme.

For both TEPCO and the government, however, addressing residents' growing sense of outrage will have to take a backseat to the ongoing fight at the power plant itself. On Saturday, Industry Minister Banri Kaieda, who is in charge of Japan's 50 reactors, donned a white protective suit and went in to thank the hundreds of workers who have braved dangerous radiation levels. Thanks to the workers' efforts, some electricity wiped out by the tsunami has been restored at the damaged reactors, but as of Monday, their cooling systems are still not online. Until they are, workers will have to continue to pour water onto the reactor cores and spent-fuel pools to keep the fuel from releasing high levels of radioactivity into the atmosphere. As they do that, the amount of radioactive wastewater generated will continue to grow, further complicating the work site. Once stabilized, actually decommissioning the Fukushima power plant so that it no longer poses a threat to Japan could take decades.

TEPCO bonds have plummeted since the quake, and there has been much speculation that the utility may have to be at least partially taken over by the government in order to pay out huge compensation claims — up to $12.3 billion in the best-case scenario, according to a report by Bank of America Merrill Lynch. Last week, the government made moves to set aside up to $47 billion to finance the reconstruction of the northeast — a sum the government says can be financed without the Bank of Japan (BOJ) buying government bonds. The BOJ has, however, offered $12 billion to lend to bank branches in the affected region to facilitate the flow of cash there and avoid bankruptcies. It did so as it lowered its economic outlook for the nation, issuing a statement that "the earthquake has sharply dampened production in some areas by damaging production facilities, disrupting the supply chain and restricting electric power supply; exports and domestic private demand have been affected accordingly."

Of course, the most profound effects of the past month will probably not be measurable in yen or becquerels. Reports of Fukushima residents being shunned because of their exposure to radiation are already trickling out in Japanese media — a disturbing echo of the institutionalized prejudice faced by victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki after World War II. But as Charles Ferguson, president of the Federation of American Scientists, points out, "Hiroshima and Nagasaki were acts of war. This has been a question of judgment." He says the approval of a nuclear power plant in a seismic zone that was within reach of a tsunami, the placement of backup generators that failed in the water's way and TEPCO's handling of the disaster have all been called into question.

The growing sense that Japan deserves an answer to these and so many other questions has charged the air in Tokyo with a new political energy. In a city where regular protests haven't been seen in 30 years, on Sunday some 15,000 demonstrators gathered in the afternoon in the capital's Koenji neighborhood, carrying placards and chanting to protest Japan's reliance on nuclear power. "I don't want nuclear power to be what we hand on to the next generation," said Leona Yuyama, a 36-year-old mother who took her four kids to the rally. "When I look at their faces every day, I keep thinking about the dangers of nuclear power and what they will have to face in the future." Many protesters worry that there are simply too many reactors on this small island nation; others talked about geothermal power as a good alternative for a relatively small country like Japan. "We need new politicians who will represent our feelings about being opposed to nuclear power," said Makoto Kitazume, a 57-year-old fisherman in the crowd. "After March 11, we lost many, many things."

With reporting by Lucy Birmingham and C. James Dale / Tokyo

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