Japan marks first anniversary of tsunami disaster

Tokyo: Japan today marked the first anniversary of the devastating earthquake and tsunami which struck the north-eastern coast of the country, killing nearly 19,000 people and triggering the world`s worst nuclear crisis since the 1986 Chernobyl disaster.

At dawn today, dozens of people from across Japan gathered at coastal town of Rikuzentakata to offer prayers for loved ones lost in the disaster.

The magnitude 9.0 quake, the most powerful since records began, triggered a serious nuclear accident at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. Thousands of people were evacuated as radiation leaked from the plant.

Shortly after the quake, an immense surge of water enveloped the north-eastern coast as a tsunami swept cars, ships, and buildings away, crushing coastal communities. The twin natural disasters claimed more than 15,800 lives, and more than 3,000 people remain unaccounted for.

Memorial services were held and a minute of silence was observed at the exact moment the quake hit, media reports said. The main memorial ceremony will be held at Tokyo`s National Theatre and will be attended by Japan`s Emperor Akihito and Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda.

The 78-year-old emperor had heart surgery three weeks ago and reports say he will attend 20 minutes of the hour-long ceremony with Empress Michiko.

Anti-nuclear protests are also scheduled to be held in Tokyo, Fukushima and other parts of the country to coincide with the anniversary. Japan`s Kyodo news agency reported that some trains in and around Tokyo will stop to mark the moment.

A year after being forced to abandon homes and businesses in the shadow of the Fukushima nuclear plant, tens of thousands of refugees are still in limbo, unable to return and having to battle for compensation.

Although much of the debris has been cleared, survivors from the devastated north-east have complained about slow recovery efforts. The country is still dealing with the economic and political fallout of the disaster. Parts of the north-eastern coast are still badly damaged.

Slow progress in drawing up plans for the tsunami and radiation tainted region is deepening the misery of survivors, about 326,000 of whom are still homeless, including 80,000 evacuated from the vicinity of the Fukushima plant.

The nuclear crisis also revealed serious flaws in the nuclear industry`s regulatory systems and safety standards. Twelve months on from the disaster, few have received the compensation payouts they expected from plant operator Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO).

TEPCO President Toshio Nishizawa apologised again for the accident at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant and vowed to continue efforts to keep the crippled complex under control. "While always keeping in mind the tremendous responsibility we have to maintain stable conditions at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, we will continue to safely work toward the mid-to-long term decommissioning of the reactors," Nishizawa said in a statement.

While the government declared the plant`s reactors had reached "cold shutdown" in December, its dismantling and the clean-up will take decades at an incalculable cost using technologies yet to be developed.