Young protesters hold a sign while walking from the gates of Vermont Yankee to downtown Brattleboro Sunday, during a mock evacuation on the one year
Young protesters hold a sign while walking from the gates of Vermont Yankee to downtown Brattleboro Sunday, during a mock evacuation on the one year anniversary of the Japanese nuclear disaster. (Josh Stilts/Reformer)
Monday March 12, 2012

VERNON -- Exactly one year after an earthquake, tsunami and fire ravaged the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant, protesters gathered at the gates of Vermont's only nuclear power plant, calling for its shutdown.

As the fate of the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant is being debated in federal court and on a state level, more than 200 people hiked six miles along Vernon Road from the plant to downtown Brattleboro Sunday, in a mock evacuation in solidarity of the thousands that lost their homes, businesses and loved ones because of the disaster in Japan.

Nina Swaim, of Sharon, was one of dozens who wore a paper skeleton mask attached to a silver cylinder with the words "VT Yankee" written across it and bubble wrap coming out of the top resembling one of the plant's steam towers.

"We need to shut this plant down," she said. "This reactor is the same type that melted down in Fukushima. If it can happen there it can happen here."

During the peace walk, other protesters wore signs that read "nuclear refugee."

Some carried luggage, pushed strollers, walked their dogs or like Susan Kunhardt, of Marlboro, carried a doll "Maggie" to simulate what many mothers had to endure attempting to flee the disaster.

"It's time to close this failing, aging plant before something like that happens here," she said. "We don't need nuclear power."

For many people in Japan, like 70-year-old Toshiko Murakami, memories of the terrifying earthquake and tsunami that destroyed much of her seaside town and swept away her sister brought fresh tears Sunday.

"My sister is still missing so I can't find peace within myself," she told the Associate Press before attending a ceremony in a tent in Rikuzentaka, Japan, marking the anniversary of the March 11, 2011, disaster that killed just over 19,000 people and unleashed the world's worst nuclear crisis in a quarter century.

Across Japan, people paused at 2:46 p.m. -- the moment the magnitude-9.0 quake struck a year ago -- for moments of silence, prayer and reflection about the enormous losses suffered and monumental tasks ahead.

Japan must rebuild dozens of ravaged coastal communities, shut down the crippled Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant and decontaminate radiated land so it is inhabitable again and many of the protesters said they're fearful that a similar incident could happen in Vermont.

The earthquake was the strongest recorded in Japan's history, and set off a tsunami that swelled to more than 65 feet (20 meters) in some spots along the northeastern coast, destroying tens of thousands of homes and causing widespread destruction.

All told, some 325,000 people are still in temporary housing. While much of the debris along the tsunami-ravaged coast has been gathered into massive piles, only 6 percent has been disposed of through incineration.

Sunday's hike was sponsored by the SAGE Alliance, a group committed to the closure of Vermont Yankee and replacing nuclear energy across the world with renewable energy sources.

After the trek Chiho Kaneko, of Hartford, gave people an eye witness report of what life is like in the aftermath of Fukushima, and nuclear experts Arnie and Margaret Gundersen gave a presentation on conditions of the plant and what the disaster means for reactors in the United States.

Kaneko said very little rebuilding has begun and that many towns are still finalizing reconstruction plans, some of which involve costly and ambitious projects like moving residential areas to higher, safer ground.

According to the Associated Press, bureaucratic delays in coordination between the central government and local officials have also slowed rebuilding efforts.

The memories of last March 11 are still raw for Naomi Fujino, a 42-year-old Rikuzentakata resident who lost her father in the tsunami. She escaped with her mother to a nearby hill, where they watched the enormous wave wash away their home. They waited all night, but her father never came as he had promised. Two months later, his body was found.

"I wanted to save people, but I couldn't. I couldn't even help my father. I cannot keep crying,'' Fujino told the AP. ‘'What can I do but keep on going?'' Public opposition to nuclear power has grown in the wake of the Fukushima disaster, the worst since Chernobyl in 1986.

The tsunami knocked out the plant's cooling systems, causing meltdowns at three reactors and spewing radiation into the air. Some 100,000 residents who were evacuated remain in temporary housing or with relatives.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

Josh Stilts can be reached at jstilts@reformer.com, or 802-254-2311 ext. 273.