Tokyo: A massive earthquake rocked Japan's northeast March 11 last year, triggering a colossal tsunami that surged inland causing carnage in coastal cities unseen in this nation since World War II.

Within an hour of the initial quake hit, tidal waves more than 10 meters in height breached sea defences and tossed cars, boats and trains around like toys, levelled buildings and washed away everything in its path. As of Friday, the official toll was 15,854, with more than 3,167 people still unaccounted for. But the unfolding catastrophe did not end with just the quake and tsunami, as reported. As the sea floor off the Tohoku coast shifted violently and unleashed the force of a magnitude-9.0 quake, the fourth largest in the world since 1900, the resulting torrent of water breached the primary and secondary defences of a coastal nuclear power plant in Fukushima prefecture, located 240 km northeast of Tokyo. The vital cooling functions at the No.1 nuclear power plant in Fukushima were knocked out as the facilities' basement housing key equipment quickly became inundated. Just four hours after the tsunami hit the nuclear plant, the Japanese government feared the damage to the reactors was so severe that a full meltdown was possible and the then prime minister Naoto Kan was on the brink of issuing an emergency evacuation order for Tokyo.

"If temperatures in the reactor cores keep rising beyond eight hours, there is a possibility of meltdown," a government official had said during the first crisis meeting four hours after the earthquake struck. Nearly two months after the crisis began, the plant's operator Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) conceded there had been a partial meltdown and that radioactive substances had been released into the air, land and sea. As spent nuclear fuel pools continued to deteriorate, and a number of hydrogen explosions and fires at reactor buildings at the plant occurred, the nation's premier first warned his cabinet that the unfolding crisis was possibly on par with the Chernobyl accident in 1986. "The amount of radiation that could be released from those reactors could be larger than Chernobyl. We must keep cooling the reactors, whatever it takes. It's going to be a long battle," Kan was quoted as saying in the crisis meeting minutes, released just recently.

On March 25, the Japan Atomic Energy Commission produced a paper stating that the likelihood existed that the crippled Fukushima plant was potentially heading towards a "worst case scenario" and in that event 30 million people from the greater Tokyo area would have to be immediately evacuated. The commission's evaluation was kept under wraps for fear of mass public panic, compounded by daily news reports, both domestic and international, of conflicting information regarding the severity of the crisis and levels of leaked radiation. The report, however, surfaced publicly in January much to the chagrin of both the Japanese and the international community and trust in the Japanese government's handling of the crisis plummeted further amid harsh international and local criticism. The nuclear disaster caused thousands of people to be displaced and rehoused in temporary shelters as the ineffective communication between the government's nuclear agencies and the plant's operator became publicly ridiculed, with discerning citizens deferring to international nuclear watchdogs like the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) for more trustworthy information. Indeed, Kan unceremoniously stepped down at the end of August to take responsibility for his government's slow response to the nuclear crisis and inability to communicate clearly and effectively with TEPCO and his domestic nuclear agencies.

Japan's current Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda admitted during a recent press conference that the Kan government monumentally failed to respond to and deal with the triple disasters of last March and lambasted Kan and his cabinet for being sluggish in passing on vital information and for being overly reliant on "a myth of safety" regarding nuclear power.

"We can no longer make the excuse that what was unpredictable and outside our imagination has happened," Noda said. "Crisis management requires us to imagine what may be outside our imagination." The prime minister went on to say that through the ineptitude of the former administration, a number of important lessons have been learned. That would ensure that were a similar disaster to happen, the nation's nuclear plants, following a series of stringent safety and stress tests, would be better equipped to deal with failing cooling systems, with potential power outages not resulting in reactors melting down, as was the case with Fukushima. While the likelihood is that the complete decommissioning of the stricken reactors at the Fukushima No.1 nuclear power plant will take 30 years or more according to the Japan Atomic Energy Commission, and public concerns about nuclear power have sparked intense debate on utilizing alternative energy sources.

Noda stands charged to move forward practically and responsibly as he looks to bring the nation's idled reactors back online. "We can say in hindsight that the government, business and scholars had all been seeped in a myth of safety, but the responsibility must be shared," the Japanese leader said.

(Agencies)