Just one year ago, Japan was struck with a devastating earthquake, followed by a tsunami. March 11, 2011 will be remembered for for many years to come. Over 20,000 people were killed, many missing and are presumed dead, after the seas retreated carrying away their bodies. A massive floating debris field is still making its way across the Pacific Ocean. Hundreds of square miles of the remains of people′s homes and businesses. Remains of their very lives. Then there is one more lasting legacy from this tragic event, the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Owned by Tokyo Electric Power, TEPCO, the plant became the worst nuclear crisis Japan had faced since World War Two. The accidents, explosions and meltdowns not only cost the government of Prime Minister Naoto Kan to be tossed out of office, but shook apart the fabric of life in Japan. Radiation fallout has rendered parts of the region unlivable, perhaps for centuries.

Japan tsunami March 11 2011

As if the earthquake and tsunami were not bad enough, wiping out whole communities and changing many others permanently, Fukushima strained the resources and capabilities of the government′s response system. Japan has had many earthquakes before. Some extremely devastating in recent times, such as the Great Hanshin earthquake. On January 17, 1995, a 6.8 magnitude quake struck just 20 miles from the major city of Kobe. More than 6,000 people were killed, most in Kobe itself. Some 200,000 buildings were destroyed, about 20% of all the structures in Kobe. Despite the very strict building codes, office buildings and apartments ′pancaked′ as they collapsed. Fires rages through the city. Some highways were smashed and took more than a year to repair. Over $100 billion dollars in damages strained Japan′s economy, which was already in a recession. But rebuild they did.

Japan tries to be the best prepared nation in the world for dealing with such disasters. It has to be, given its location on the geological danger zone known as the Pacific Rim of Fire. The event of March 11, 2011, officially known as the Tōhoku Earthquake, began with a series of strong quakes leading up to the big one, measuring 9.0 in magnitude. Nearly the entire north-eastern coastline literally dropped some 7 feet on average. In some areas, like at Fukushima, it fell even more. This led to the precautionary seawalls built to withstand tsunamis useless as a series of waves, some more than 40 feet high, slammed into the coast. Seawater rushed inland for miles. Some communities still have new, saltwater lakes in or near them today as a result.

At Fukushima, the tsunami damaged essential equipment and systems needed to cool and control the nuclear reactors. Back-up electrical generators installed to keep circulating cooling water were destroyed or flooded. While the reactors did automatically shut down, their super-hot fuel rods quickly rose in temperature and began melting. Existing water in the reactor vessels soon vaporized. Control room managers tried to vent gases, especially hydrogen. But it was not long before the hydrogen build up inside the containment buildings reached a point where one tiny spark would cause a massive explosion and explode they did. One by one, the four reactor buildings each were damaged, their roofs blown away, and radiation was now escaping.

So in the midst of attempting to respond and deal with the worst earthquake in Japan′s history, officials now had to contend with another nightmare. One which could turn into another Chernobyl, rendering a large portion of their island nation uninhabitable for centuries to come. The deadly and invisible radiation was spreading where ever the wind blew it. During the first few days, TEPCO tried to reassure everybody, including the government, that they had things under control. But as the drama unfolded and the days dragged on, it became clear to all that the situation was getting worse, not better.

At first, residents within 6 miles of the plant were evacuated. Then the area was extended to a 12-mile exclusion zone. Within a few days, the U.S. State Department recommended that all American citizens leave within 50 miles of the Fukushima Diiachi nuclear power plant. Some 80,000 Americans were contacted and arrangements began for getting most of them out of the country. U.S. Navy ships aiding in rescue missions had to put out to sea to avoid clouds of radiation. Meanwhile, TEPCO had 50 volunteers remain behind inside the plant to try to get some sort of make-shift repairs going. It was considered essentially as a suicide mission. All of them would receive high doses of radiation as they battled to get cooling water to the burning fuel rods.

Even after 2 weeks, the danger was far from over. Only now was TEPCO beginning to admit just how bad things were at Fukushima. The the containment vessel of Reactor 3 had a breach in it due to the meltdown. On March 30, TEPCO held a news conference listing all the problems they were facing. That efforts to dump water on the reactors had only made matters worse with pools of contaminated water inside each structure. The water would have to be pumped out before any attempt to begin sealing the buildings began. By April 4, caution was tossed to the wind as TEPCO started dumping radioactive water into the Pacific Ocean.

By April 22, the government announced that additional towns would have to be evacuated. The president of TEPCO gave a formal apology to the government for their failures in dealing with the crisis. Not until May 5 did workers actually reenter one of the four damaged containment buildings to ′eyeball′ the situation. On May 14, the third TEPCO worker died from radiation. Six days later, the president of the power company resigned. Four days after that, TEPCO tells the IAEA that all three reactor cores had melted. Number 1 Reactor core had completely melted while 2 and 3 had partially melted, as did the fuel rods in Building 4 that were being stored.

Not until August 10 did the situation finally reached a point of where the crisis was officially over. Emergency cooling systems had been installed and were now working. The ensuing weeks and months began to paint a grim picture. Traces of deadly plutonium were found well outside the designated evacuation zone. A team of scientists from the International Atomic Energy Agency estimated that the actual release of radiation was perhaps as much as 20 times higher than what TEPCO had been saying. In November, conflicting reports surfaced about a possible fission event in Reactor 2 during the emergency, bringing home the realization that the accident could have been far worse than Chernobyl. Not until December 20, 2011, were the reactors of the Fukushima Diiachi nuclear plant declared completely stable and secure. In February of 2012, work began on entombing the reactor buildings in a thick layer of concrete.

The earthquake and tsunami which struck Japan on March 11, 2011, was one of the worst in recorded history. If the destructive power of Nature, which quickly killed nearly 20,000 people, were not bad enough, the additional disaster at the Fukushima Diiachi nuclear plant made matters far worse. Aside from interfering with rescue and clean up operations in response to the quake and tsunami, the worst nuclear crisis in Japan′s history dragged on and on in the national theater for weeks. All along the whole Northeast coast, people struggling with the ravages of the natural disaster now faced a man-made disaster. Japan struggles as it tries to rebuild. For many years to come, the events of one year ago today will haunt them as their future grows more uncertain.