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information about Fukushima published in English in Japanese media info publiée en anglais dans la presse japonaise

"Beacon of hope"

March 8, 2017


Beacon of Hope



- Urara Ito


A local factory has been turning debris into something that can be used to rebuild a tsunami-hit city in northeastern Japan.

Ofunato, in Iwate prefecture, was one of the areas hardest hit by the 2011 disaster. Six years after the unprecedented devastation, rebuilding continues there. What makes the city stand out is that people there turned tsunami debris into concrete.

The tsunami on March 11, 2011, engulfed thousands of homes and buildings -- as well as the largest cement factory in the region. One of the factory's kilns survived, however, and it became a beacon of hope for the city. Many of the factory's employees lost family members and homes in the disaster, but they came back to work at the plant.

"As I recall, we assembled all our employees and declared to them, 'Let's resurrect our factory together,' says Atsuhiro Koike, the former manufacturing manager at Taiheiyo Cement.

The tsunami turned the city into 850,000 tons of rubble. City officials wanted to recycle the debris by using it to make cement, so they teamed up with waste treatment personnel and the factory workers.

But that process was no easy task. Every bit of debris had to be separated into 3 groups: wood, metal and other nonflammables. The workers were joined by their neighbors -- people who also lost homes and loved ones. They separated the debris by hand.

"Whether wood or a lump of concrete, originally it was our homes, our property," says Mutsuo Hiraoka.

As if the sorting wasn't enough of a challenge, there was an even bigger problem. The debris was seeped in salt.

"You need to put rebar in cement but if there's salt, it makes the iron corrode. So we needed to get rid of the salt in order to make cement," Koike says.

A lab in Osaka volunteered its services. First they tried a 50-meter conveyer belt that would shower the debris with water, but the process took too long. They went through 7 months of trial and error, and came up with a special machine.

"Imagine it's like using a washing machine put sideways. Things inside are rotated in a centrifuge in water and it can even take salt out of wood fiber," says Junji Kitazaki, an official at the industrial waste treatment company Rematec.

Each load took 5 minutes and with their machines, they were able to desalt 500 tons of rubble per day.

Eventually it was time to restart the surviving kiln.

"It was like a ritual to put a soul into the kiln. It was a ceremony where everybody that was present was feeling something special," Koike says.

A city lost, became a city reborn.

"I think everyone participated in the process because they wanted to rebuild their own city as soon as possible," says Junichiro Mori, an official at the Industrial waste treatment company Rematec.

Last year, another powerful earthquake struck southern Japan. The factory is now using debris from that disaster to once again help people rebuild their lives.

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