FUKUSHIMA--A statue of a child wearing what appears to be a hazardous material suit unveiled near the site of the Fukushima nuclear disaster has drawn a barrage of criticism from residents and forced the sculptor to apologize.

The 6.2-meter high statue, "Sun Child," was put up in the city of Fukushima this month and shows a child in what appears to be a bright yellow "hazmat" suit holding a helmet in one arm.

On the child's chest is a radiation counter reading zero.

A major earthquake and tsunami on March 11, 2011, led to meltdowns at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, the world's worst nuclear disaster since the Chernobyl accident in 1986.

Many thousands of people were displaced by leaking radiation and many have still been unable to return home.

Residents said the statue would only prolong the painful memories of an accident that seemed destined to forever link the name Fukushima with nuclear disaster.

"I don't think Fukushima will be able to escape from its tainted reputation, so I understand what the sculptor wanted to say," said Ikue Tsunoda.

"However, residents don't wear hazmat suits, so I think that was provocative," she said.

Sculptor Kenji Yanobe said he had worked on the theme of radioactivity since 1991, as a way of showing how difficult it was for humans to deal with nuclear power.

He said he wanted to show the air was now safe--the child is shown with the helmet off and the counter on its chest points to zero--though he said he was sorry the work had disturbed people.

"I sincerely apologize to those who were upset by my artwork," Yanobe said in a statement on his website.

City officials sought to smooth over the controversy.

"The statue represents the future free from nuclear disaster," said Mariko Furukawa, manager of the city's Board of Education.

Some 18,000 people were killed by the 2011 earthquake, most of them by the tsunami waves that swept ashore.