Tuesday 11 September 2012

One and a half years on

It's time for my monthly round up of events, on another landmark date. First, let's see what's happening at Fukushima Daiichi. Reactors 1, 2 and 3, where meltdown occurred, are in a state of cold shutdown though radiation inside the reactors is at fatal levels and radioactive materials continue to escape from the damaged buildings at a rate of 10 million bq/hr which sounds a lot but is a fraction of what it was. Levels are monitored on site and reported to be 0.02 mSv/yr posing 'no major risk to health'. 

You may recall scare stories a while back about the danger of Unit 4 collapsing (it houses spent and unspent fuel), but the roof has been removed to reduce the weight on the structure and last month two fuel assemblies were removed, tested and found to be intact. There was also a scare last month when water levels for cooling dropped in all three reactors simultaneously due to a leak blockage in the labyrinthine network of plastic piping that circulates the water.

The long term plan is to start removing fuel from Unit 4 in December next year. Then within 10 years, fuel will start to be removed from the other reactors, work which should be completed 20 to 25 years from now. Closing the reactor down for good will take 30 to 40 years. Labour and expertise will be a problem. Few young people are going into the nuclear industry now.

161,000 people are still evacuated. In June the zones were redrawn according to levels of air-borne radiation and six counties have made plans for residents to return. So Iitate county which was famous for its dairy farms and 'slow life' and whose mayor pledged they'd be back in 2 years, now plans to have people return by March 2015 but it depends how the clean up goes and it's behind schedule. Naraha county, south of the reactor, most of which is in the under 20 mSv/yr zone, plans to return by 2014. But when you see people interviewed on TV they seem unsure. The government has said it will clean 20 m around each house but don't plan to clean the forests as removing fallen leaves and branches would cause erosion and a different set of problems. Understandable, but radiation drifts in from the woods, and young families are not going to return unless levels are under 1 mSv/yr.

More problematic are plans for the areas near the plant, which are (from north to south) Namie, Futaba, Okuma and Tomioka. They're in the 'hard to return' zones (over 50 mSv/yr) and the big cloud hanging over these areas is the issue of storage facilities for the waste from the clean up. There's talk of building 'temporary towns' (仮の町 kari no machi) in other areas but it's proving hard to organise. The government will pay for the housing but the host authority will have to provide services. Who would administer them? Two bureaucracies would be crazy. And what happens to the new towns in 5 or 10 years time when the evacuees move back? Lots of negotiating needed and no clear idea yet of how it will work. If they don't get a move on the only people left will be the old and the vulnerable.

After the cold spell in June it turned out to be a hot summer and there's a good crop of peaches and nashi pears in this major fruit growing region. I'm told the fruit were slightly smaller this year as the trees had suffered stress when the orchards were 'decontaminated' in the winter. This involved hosing down the trees and removing the bark. But it paid off and the fruit this year has been ND (no caesium detected) and has been selling well with prices 80% of pre-disaster levels for peaches and back to normal for nashi pears. They're even being exported. The first plane load of peaches left yesterday for Bangkok.

The early rice is being harvested and this year there's a proper system for testing. Every sack of rice goes through a machine and is given a sticker if it's clear.

Here in Koriyama, 56 kms from Fukushima Daiichi, the monitoring post at my local park tells me levels are down to 0.38 μSv/hr - falling every month now. Certainly, we're more relaxed these days. We've learned to 'live with radiation' though an expert on TV the other day (Kimura Shinzo) told us to remain vigilant. After-school club activities (部活 bukatsu) have been resumed and apparently external exposure is on the rise. He recommends no more than 2 hours outside in areas of 0.5 μSv/hr.

Nationwide, the anti-nuclear movement gains momentum. The Friday night demonstration outside the PM's residence continues. People are saving electricity. When the Prime Minister re-opened the Oi nuclear plant in Fukui, the argument was that without it there would be a 15% shortage of electricity in the Osaka area. As it turned out, people used 11% less than in 2010, which begs the question, was the power from the Oi plant needed? It is a remarkable achievement. Not only are people, horrified by what happened in Fukushima, advocating an end to nuclear power, but they're actually doing something to show that it's not needed. It represents a real shift in values.

The Japanese parliament has closed down whilst the parties choose leaders in preparation for a general election. I wouldn't mind but they're not doing their job as lawmakers. The Japanese people deserve better government.
Well, that's all for now. Everything is taking such a long time but there are snippets of good news which we hang on to.

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