Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Happy New Year!


Happy New Year in the year of the horse! 
Of all the traditional dolls made at Dekoyashiki in Miharu, ten kilometres from Koriyama, I like the horse best of all. Isn't he cheeky? 
Wishing you all the best in the coming year.

Saturday, 21 December 2013

Happy Christmas!

Happy Christmas, one and all!

This comes with my very best wishes for happy holidays wherever you are.
As for me, I'll be taking a couple of weeks off from this blog. More in the New Year.
In the meantime, greetings from Koriyama!

Hmm. West meets East?

An acquaintance from the Junior Chamber of Commerce
getting shoppers in the Christmas mood.
Usui Department Store
Mukaiyama Seisakujo's caramels 

Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Not in My Back Yard

Suddenly it's winter. On Friday night there was heavy snowfall in the Aizu area and a couple of inches in Koriyama. My friends from Kitakata came over on Sunday to do some Christmas shopping. 'Samui ne', they complained. 'But you've got over two feet of snow' I exclaimed, 'how can you say it's cold?' But it's true - Koriyama is a windy city: add in the chill factor and it is COLD.

A friend in the Shibamiya area of Koriyama was looking forward to getting her house decontaminated (she has two young sons). But the work seems to have got delayed: only a couple of areas of public housing were remediated and the workers have left for the time being. Maybe the weather, maybe budget restrictions. I'll be interested to hear how they explain the process to her and how long they say the stuff they remove has to remain buried in her garden.

With a bit of luck that wait may be shortened with the recent announcement that the government is to buy up land near Fukushima Daiichi and further south near Fukushima Daini for the so-called 'interim storage facilities' which will store radioactive waste from the whole prefecture for the next 30 years. The purchase of the extra land (19 square kilometres in total) should make construction easier and quicker and they're hoping to have them up and running by January 2015. The Minister of the Environment was up here last weekend to negotiate with the local authorities affected. One of their conditions is that Fukushima will not be the final resting place for the waste: that in 30 years time the stuff will be moved somewhere else. That seems a bit optimistic to me. Would they really shift it in 30 years time?

This is nimbyism writ large and crucial to the nuclear power argument. What to do with the waste? No one wants it in their back yard.

I saw in the paper that Koriyama City too is working on a new facility to store radioactive waste. The City has no dumps as yet and the waste resulting from decontamination work all has to be stored on site, in parks, in gardens, in school yards. Apparently the new facility is to store soil removed when they remediate the roads (it's currently buried in parks). The dump is due to open next year, but, interestingly, the City hasn't announced where it is ...
All the best

Friday, 13 December 2013

Voices of Fukushima

On Monday I showed a German journalist around Koriyama. We were able to interview some evacuees from Tomioka in the temporary shelter here, and we also visited a supermarket which does food testing on the premises. Let me share some of my impressions with you.

The three people we talked to from Tomioka in the exclusion zone were all very positive and resigned to making the best of things. Two years and nine months on, they have made a new life here and none of them contemplates going back to Tomioka. But it's only when you get talking to them that you realise what they have lost. As one man said, he used to live near the sea and in the summer with the windows open you could hear the sound of the waves. Here in Koriyama there are only cars and the noise of traffic. His relatives lived in the same village and when he walked around he knew everybody. Now he lives with his uncle in the shelter but his other relatives are scattered far and wide. Perhaps the most poignant part was when the journalist asked to see photos of his old house. 'But there are none' he said, 'everything was washed away. I lost everything.'

When we got onto the big questions, the opinions were strong but voiced gently, with an undertone of resignation. There was anger that no recovery work had been done in Tomioka, their early optimism now abandoned; there was irritation at the politicians who come and visit but don't listen; and there was unequivocal opposition to nuclear power (even from one man who worked 40 years in the nuclear industry). All they want now is a decent place to live and settle down. 

They were great people and we had a good laugh. Only writing this down now do I feel humbled by the way they're coping.

Next stop, a supermarket in the Kikuta area of Koriyama called Vereshu (ベレッシュ in Japanese). In October 2012 they built a glass-fronted food testing room right at the entrance to the shop so customers can see the food being tested. Actually it's a privately run farmers' market so the farmers bring the produce in, have it monitored on the spot, then put on the shelves. The manager said custom had plummeted after the accident but risen after installing the equipment, and increased considerably this year. Food in Japan has to have less than 100 becquerels per kilogram but almost all produce now tests ND (not detected). According to the manager, the only things that have shown positive these last two years have been blueberries and yuzu citrus, though these are still well below the permissible level. Although the two gamma testing machines were paid for by the prefecture, the organisation paid for the rest of the facility and foots the bill for the running costs including salaries for two staff. Asked how long they contemplated carrying on with the testing, the manager thought ten years at least. Even though almost everything tested is ND, every time a high level is detected and gets in the papers, say in another part of the prefecture, people start to get anxious again. So the message needs to be constantly reinforced. 

As we left, the store manager accosted us in the car park and in the freezing cold asked us to get the message out: 'Food here is safe. We're living normal lives. Just because there are problems at Fukushima Daiichi, it doesn't mean life here is dangerous. Look at the data, be objective, don't be swayed by scare-mongering on the internet.'

You can't help admiring these people for their spirit in the face of adversity, for taking a bad situation and making it better.
21 January 2014 Saw in the paper that the shop is testing a new machine (GAGG scintillator) which measures the raw veg. No need to chop and liquidise. 

Sunday, 8 December 2013

Christmas market

Hi folks
Just take a look at these veggies. Aren't they wonderful? An acquaintance, Koichi Fujita, who is a vegetable sommelier no less, has won prizes for his Koriyama branded vegetables. Today there was a Christmas market in town. As well as wonderfully fresh vegetables at very reasonable prices, there was a delicious aroma of baked sweet potatoes (his new brand Menge which means 'cute' in the local dialect) as well as tarts and sweets made from carrot and sweet potato. No reason to shun Fukushima fruit and veg. These people are doing a great job.  Anne

Fujita-san, me, and another lady in charge of a vegetable growing NPO

Friday, 29 November 2013

New Secrecy Bill

Hi folks
There's a lot of controversy in Japan at the moment about new legislation which will impose a 10 year prison sentence on those who leak 'special secrets' concerning diplomacy, defence, counterterrorism or espionage. It's designed so Japan can share sensitive information with other countries but it was rushed through the Lower House on Tuesday and the Upper House on Thursday and people feel there hasn't been enough discussion. It's contentious because the definition of a 'special secret' (tokutei himitsu 特定秘密) is vague and there is as yet no independent checking body or system of appeal - the Prime Minister, of all people, is to decide what constitutes a 'special secret'. Information was to be declassified after 30 years (though extendable) but after discussions with the Restoration Party (Ishin no kai) that got changed to 60 years (with no extensions). 

The bill has drawn widespread protest from the press, citizens' groups, and the public at large. But for some reason there is a Fukushima connection that I can't quite fathom. The day before the bill was presented to the Lower House, last Monday 25 November, the lower house special committee held a public hearing in Fukushima city, the only such hearing in the whole country. Seven prominent people were asked to give their views. But what was the point when the bill went before the house and was passed the very next day? All seven people voiced concern because they are afraid information relating to the nuclear disaster could become classified. Mr Baba, Mayor of Namie in the exclusion zone, was outspoken. Immediately after the earthquake, he said, police and others appeared dressed in what he at the time thought were 'spacesuits'. The residents hadn't been told of any danger. Later they were told to evacuate but were given no information. People ended up travelling under the plume. The Japanese government did not disclose the SPEEDI data until May although other countries had made it public. No wonder he doesn't trust the government. He said on TV that if the storage dumps for nuclear waste were deemed a terrorist target, they could come under the new law. Obviously people here are very keen on preserving their 'right to know' about progress in decommissioning at Fukushima Daiichi. There are worries that workers at the plant won't be able to speak out or that evidence in court cases to do with nuclear plants won't be put forward because it's secret.

And why was Mori Masako, local MP, put in charge of this bill? She is indeed a lawyer, but an expert in consumer rights, and she currently serves as Minister in charge of the declining birth rate, consumer affairs, food safety and gender equality. Seems odd.
All the best

Monday, 18 November 2013

Local Elections

Yesterday, Sunday, saw the election for Mayor of Fukushma City. I hadn't really been following it. Fukushima is 25 miles north of Koriyama and I just presumed that the incumbent would be re-elected. But no, he was ousted and Kaoru Kobayashi won by a landslide. Until the summer he was director of the Tohoku regional office of the Environment Ministry, the ministry in charge of decontamination. And this seems to be the issue closest to voters' hearts. Over half said they voted for him because of issues related to the accident, the main one being decontamination. 90,000 houses are to be decontaminated in the city but work has been completed on only 23%. It's taking too long. Moreover, Kobayashi pledged to work personally to get more temporary storage facilities for the radioactive rubbish up and running in the city. Not only has there been no progress on the so-called 'Interim Storage Facilities' to be set up by the government in the exclusion zone to store the prefecture's contaminated soil and rubble for the next 30 years, but closer to home, at the municipal level, there aren't enough dumps either. It's all very well having your gutters cleaned and topsoil removed but no one wants that stuff buried in their own garden. The good people of Fukushima city are hoping, I guess, that Mr Kobayashi has the energy, experience and clout to sort this problem.

Come to think of it, the three largest cities in Fukushima prefecture have all had elections this year - Koriyama, Fukushima and Iwaki - and in all three cities the incumbents have lost. You can't help thinking people are fed up with the government taking so long to get the recovery going and are taking it out on local candidates. The governor of Fukushima prefecture comes up for election next autumn. He must be feeling nervous.

Looking at Mr Kobayashi's resume, he did an MA at Sussex University in England. Not many people up here speak English. I wonder what his English is like now?
24 November 2013  Two more elections today, two more incumbents toppled - in Nihonmatsu and Hirono. This is getting beyond coincidence.

Sunday, 17 November 2013

U-turn on Repatriation

Hi folks
The mountains surrounding Koriyama are dusted with white after the first snowfall earlier in the week. Minowa ski resort on Mount Bandai has opened for the season - though I think they've had the snow machines on full blast.

In the summer the PM pledged to speed up the recovery and the ruling parties' working group has just produced its recommendations. The government's done a U-turn on policy to repatriate the 140,000 evacuees. Up to now, plans were based on the principle that everyone would be re-housed in 'new communities' and at some stage everyone would return to where they lived before the disaster. Now they're saying people must be told if and when they'll be able to go back and given support if they choose to live elsewhere. At long last the government seems to be looking at things realistically, from the residents' perspective, but it has taken so long.  

Regular surveys have shown that a growing number of people don't want to go back. The continuing reports of the troubles at Fukushima Daiichi haven't helped. And decontamination is proving trickier and far more expensive than first thought. 

Local leaders broadly welcome the report but the devil is in the detail, and no details have been announced yet. Not to put too fine a point on it: a lot depends on the compensation package. The current system doesn't provide enough compensation to buy a house elsewhere. This will change. Local leaders warn that those who decide to go back shouldn't lose out.

I still don't really understand what's going to happen. At Chernobyl the 30 km exclusion zone imposed at the time of the accident is still in force although there are some 'stubborn oldies' who live within the zone but receive proper support. I know the damage here was nothing like as bad and the working party say there is no change in the long term aim -  to have people return eventually. Does that mean people will be able to choose, after a certain period, to go back? What a difficult decision. We wait and see. Details have been promised by the end of the year. 

A while back I told you about the delay in building new housing for evacuees due to escalating prices for construction. When Home's not so Sweet  Well, with much fanfare, there was a ceremony today to mark the start of construction of a block of 40 apartments in Koriyama, the first to be built. It will be completed in October next year. More houses for 3,700 families are planned.
Bye for now

Monday, 11 November 2013

Start of Decommissioning

Later this month work will start on removing the fuel assemblies in Reactor 4 at Fukushima Daiichi. The building was badly damaged in the hydrogen explosion and you may remember the scare at one time about nuclear fallout if the roof caved in. Well, all the debris has been removed and a brand new building constructed above and alongside the unit. 

There are 1,331 spent fuel assemblies and 202 unused ones being kept cool in a pool above the reactor. The plan is to lift each one out by crane, insert into a special container and transport to a different storage pool 100 metres away. This work, which marks the beginning of decommissioning proper, will take until the end of next year.

According to the local paper (Fukushima Minpo 10 November 2013), radiation on the 5th Floor is  0.1 - 0.13 mSv/hour. 36 people will work in 6 groups with each group working about two hours a day. The maximum exposure allowed for each worker is 0.8 mSv per day. That sounds a lot to me - most people don't want more than 1 mSv in a year! I hope they're well protected.

The two biggest problems in decommissioning Fukushima Daiichi will be removing the melted fuel in reactors 1 to 3, and ensuring there are enough skilled people over the next 30 to 40 years to do the work. Tepco has just announced a raft of measures to improve working conditions. The current 10,000 yen allowance per day (on top of normal pay) is to be doubled to 20,000 yen (200 US$, 126 GBP) per day. Next, the area where full-face masks don't have to be worn is to be increased to two thirds of the site as a result of decontamination. The masks are cumbersome - workers can't communicate with each other easily - and this may have contributed to work errors in the past. New facilities - an 8-storey rest house for 1,200 workers and a cafeteria to provide 3,000 meals  - are also to be built on site. But they won't be ready for over a year. In the meantime, conditions are pretty cramped.

The local evening news showed Bobby Charlton (former football star who helped England win the World Cup in 1966) visiting J-village, which used to be the national youth soccer training centre. He said what an immaculate pitch it used to be and was obviously shocked to see it covered in pre-fabs for the workers at Fukushima Daiichi. He pledged British help in reinstating it.

The national news was full of pictures of the typhoon and tsunami-like flooding in the Philippines. My heart goes out to those people.

Saturday, 9 November 2013

So now 20 mSv/year is OK!

It's just been announced that the Nuclear Regulation Authority is proposing that up to 20 mSv/year of additional air-borne radiation poses no risk to health. This will form part of government guidelines for repatriation of evacuees to be announced at the end of the year. Well, well, well! This has been such a touchy subject. After the accident people were evacuated from areas over 20 mSv/year. The ICRP said at the time that the range in such an emergency situation was between 1 and 20 mSv. But there was an outcry when the government first announced a level of 20 mSv - it seemed too close to evacuation levels. What was safe? Everyone was confused. The government's knee-jerk reaction was to lower the 'safe' level to 1 mSv - that became the target for decontamination, and people here came to believe that exposure over 1 mSv/year was not safe. There were even some ugly scenes when experts arguing for less strict standards were heckled by residents. 

The meter in my local park today showing 0.281 μSv/hour. Falling very gradually
but still not down to the magic figure of 0.23 μSv/hour
Here in Koriyama, 1 mSv/year is the target for decontamination work currently underway. By a strange logic this is worked out to 0.23 μSv (microsieverts)/hour. But as I have said many times, the equation is based on being outdoors for 8 hours of the day and spending the other 16 hours in a house constructed of wood. This is unrealistic for most people. When I carried a dosimeter for a month in June my estimated accumulated additional exposure came to only 0.3 mSv/year - way below 1 mSv. There are still places in Koriyama registering 0.5 or 0.6 μSv/hour but for most people this would still come to under 1 mSv/year. So I'm convinced Koriyama is safe.

But what of the evacuated areas? Pretty soon those in the 'hard to return areas' of 50 mSv/year are going to be told they can't go back. In the surrounding areas (the 'restricted residence areas' of 20 - 50 mSv, and the 'preparation for the lifting of the ban areas' up to 20 mSv/year) it's become evident that levels can't be reduced to 1 mSv/year. Many evacuees are understandably reluctant to return as they don't think levels of say 5 mSv/year are safe - 1 mSv has become the yardstick in the popular perception. Today's news is a move in the right direction but people will need convincing. The governor of Fukushima has long campaigned for the government to provide scientific evidence for the 1 mSv level. This time round the government's going to have to do a better job explaining the new standards to the public.
Measuring radiation is such a tricky and emotive subject.
More about this next time.

Thursday, 7 November 2013

Autumn in Fukushima

All this year it's seemed like bad weather every weekend and then brilliant sunshine once back to work. This last weekend was no different, a long weekend (Culture Day), when I went with friends to admire the autumn colours in the Aizu area, west of Koriyama. Despite the rain, it was magnificent. Hope you don't mind me showing you my holiday pics.

One of the Five Coloured Ponds (Goshikinuma) in Ura Bandai. Too misty to see Mt. Bandai.

Then on a train from Kitakata to Tsugawa in Niigata prefecture along the valley of  the Aga River

Met a steam train coming the other way

Then back by car. This river changes its name three times. It's the Tadami River from the source to Aizu, the Aga River from Aizu to the Fukushima border, then the Agano River in Niigata prefecture.

Stumbled on an outdoor art exhibition

(By the way, there was an electric fence round this field - to keep the monkeys out!)

Ensoji Temple in Yanaizu.
Legend has it that magical oxen helped build the temple, giving rise to
those red toy cows with bobbing heads (akabeko) you see everywhere

If you take a path up the hill to the right of the temple you come across this lovely autumn scene.

Then on to my favourite place, Nagatoko near Kitakata. Originally built in 1089 it's the oldest building in north east Japan. Open to the elements, with the thatch roof held up by 44 thick pillars, it was used for ceremonial shrine dances in the Heian period.

The younger gingko tree to the right of the shrine  had turned yellow but  curiously not this 800 year old tree. I'll have to come back later to get the classic shot of Nagatoko covered in yellow leaves.

Gingko leaves and nuts

Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Another aftershock

A big tremor last Friday night. I was woken at ten past two, got out of bed, stood under the doorway to the kitchen (best to be under a supported wall) and held on. It lasted quite a while. My building was built over 20 years ago and being on the 7th floor I feel it swaying. Next, switch on the TV (as one does): magnitude 7, off the Fukushima coast, force 4 in Koriyama, warning for a tsunami one metre high. About five minutes later, a report that Fukushima Daiichi has sustained no damage. So that's alright then. Back to bed. Next day hear that it's another aftershock from the big one and that we can expect more.

There's been a development regarding repatriation of evacuees since my last post. A proposal to end monthly compensation one year after the ban on an area has been lifted seems to have been accepted by the local authorities affected. There was some opposition. People were saying a year wouldn't be long enough if there was a rush to get building work done. But it seems to have gone through. The corollary of this is that residents may try and delay the bans being lifted. This has already happened in Miyakoji in Tamura city area. The government wanted to lift the ban on November 1st but the residents got this delayed until next spring. The compensation, by the way, is that being paid by Tepco for 'stress' caused by the accident; rents etc would continue to be paid by the prefecture/government. Still, as I said, in my last post, there are a lot of issues that should be sorted before people go back including compensation for property, proper infrastructure including schools, hospitals and shops, various kinds of support. But stopping monthly compensation will no doubt serve as a stick to encourage people to go back.

After the many typhoons this season the weather seems to be settling. Beautiful autumn weather. Not before time I'm planning a couple of trips to the mountains to enjoy the autumn colour. More later.

Friday, 25 October 2013

When Home's not so Sweet

Post-Fukushima, life here in the city of Koriyama is back to normal. We get blow-by-blow accounts on TV of leaking contaminated water at Fukushima Daiichi (only 60 km away) which makes you angry but, generally speaking, people here don't seem so nervous these days. The schools have lifted restrictions on how long kids can play outside. People seem to be buying Fukushima produce - new season rice and wonderful fruit. 

But what of those who've been evacuated? Nearly 30,000 people in Fukushima prefecture face their third winter in temporary housing. Kasetsu - it's a new word, written in katakana カセツ - and refers to the flimsy barrack style prefabs designed to last for two years but extended to five. Nearly 54,000 more people live in rented accommodation paid for by the prefecture and there are 1,200 in council housing. All are waiting, still waiting, for new flats and houses to be built. A few hundred have been built but things aren't going according to plan. For example, there's a patch of land in Koriyama earmarked for building. Construction was supposed to start last month for completion next March but there were no bids when the work was put out to tender. This is a story being repeated all over Tohoku. The price of materials has risen 20% and there's a labour shortage so construction companies can't do the work at the price offered by local authorities. One bloke was telling me he used to be able to book a crane a few days ahead, now one needs to be booked weeks in advance. People up here have mixed feelings about the Olympics. They're worried that Olympic projects will make shortages even more acute and delay construction further.

And what of the future? Will people go back? Even in Kawauchi, where the ban in the 20 to 30 km zone was lifted as early as March 2012 and the mayor has done everything right - attracting new businesses and building an old people's home and a clinic - only 20% of the population have returned to live full-time. Likewise in Hirono, south of Tomioka, many people are still reluctant to return. Now the government wants to lift the ban in Miyakoji in Tamura city (coloured green on the map below) so that those who want to can go back. But these are not easy decisions for people to make. Even if the house is decontaminated and levels low, levels in the woods or fields around may be high. Old people may go back but not young families. Can they cope? Can they afford to renovate or rebuild their houses? Where do they go to work or to do their shopping? The coastal area, where they used to go, is out of bounds. Decontamination proper has started in the exclusion zone but who wants to go back to an area over-run by wild boars and rats? As a friend reported in the Mainichi yesterday, it's not a case of 'going home'; the place they knew is no longer there. More a case of daring to venture into new territory. The evacuees have been kept in limbo too long. They need to be told either that they'll never be able to go back, or highly organised plans need to be put in place to support repatriation in those areas on the periphery.
Map in English of current zones

Heavy rain all day today. Typhoon No 27. Tepco workers making more preparations: there were too many spills during the last typhoon. This spate of typhoons is said to be caused by rising sea temperatures due to global warming ...

Tuesday, 15 October 2013


There's already a gale blowing outside tonight but a strong typhoon is set to hit Tokyo (and us) tomorrow. We often get the wind and rain from typhoons further south but it's not often a typhoon actually hits, or 'lands' (joriku suru 上陸する). It's Typhoon No 26 - the 26th this season (here they don't give typhoons girls' names) and it's said to be the strongest in 10 years. Over 600 schools in Fukushima prefecture will be closed tomorrow, trains will be on a reduced timetable and hundreds of domestic flights are cancelled (although at the moment only a few international flights).

The TV always goes over the top when it comes to warnings. We have to take everything off the balcony, including clothes pegs which can turn into 'deadly weapons' in the wind (NHK's News Nine tonight). Once many years ago I watched so much television I scared myself silly and stayed with a friend for three days! 

It just happened that today was the day Mr Sato, governor of Fukushima, visited Fukushima Daiichi. Of course he stressed typhoon preparation - especially since there was a problem after Typhoon No. 18 last month when heavy rain raised water levels in the 'overflow trays' at the bottom of the tanks for contaminated water and overflowed. IAEA international experts are also in Japan and Governor Sato will have stressed the need for better management of the contaminated water. But strong winds, high waves and heavy rainfall in what threatens to be the worst typhoon since the disaster aren't going to help.
Good night
17 October:  There was a lot of rain. Workers did have to empty some of the sinks around the tanks into the ground (having checked levels were below limits previously agreed with the Nuclear Regulation Authority). Excess water was also pumped into an unused storage pool.

Friday, 11 October 2013

Trouble, trouble

Never a day seems to go by without some announcement of 'trouble' at Fukushima Daiichi. Tanks have been leaking, areas near the tanks are showing very high levels of radiation (in one place as high as 2,200 mSv/hour), a group of workers opened the wrong pipe and got irradiated, another worker hosed contaminated water up into the wrong tank and it overflowed, the ALPS decontamination plant came to a halt because someone had left a rubber sheet in the works, there was a brief power failure etc. etc. The other day it was reported that a contract worker had thrown confidential papers regarding compensation into a Tokyo street rubbish bin. The list goes on and on. 

We know there is a shortage of workers (3,000 at the plant, 2,000 of them subcontractors). We know they work in very difficult conditions and demands on them increase daily. We know the measures are stop gap and temporary (quick to assemble bolted together water tanks rather than properly welded tanks, miles and miles of plastic tubing ... ). We know Tepco is over-stretched. It is after all, supposed to be running a power generation and supply company. No nuclear power plant has ever been decommissioned in Japan, let alone one the state Fukushima Daiichi is in. 

And yet the mistakes seem to be so basic, caused it is said by lack of communication between the Tepco managers (the elite) and those on the frontline (mainly subcontractors). The president, Mr Hirose, has pledged to bring more people in from other parts of the company. In the meantime, confidence on the part of the public, the government, the Nuclear Regulation Authority, and people here in Fukushima, especially the evacuees, ebbs away.

Yesterday Tepco announced that it had found a small amount of caesium in waters 1 km out to sea for the first time (although only 1.4 bq/litre; the iinternational limit is 10 bq/litre). That does challenge the Prime Minister's assertion to the International Olympic Committee that the sea is safe. The IAEA is to send a team of international experts next month to monitor radioactivity in the sea and publish the results in English. In the meantime, test fishing resumed towards the end of last month and the fish has been tested and seems to be selling well so there seems to be no cause for concern - at least for the time being. 

The Japanese word for 'trouble' is to-ra-bu-ru. And it's even evolved into a verb: torabutte iru - 'there's a problem'. The English language evolves in mysterious ways!

Thursday, 10 October 2013

Yae no Sakura 2

Hi again,
NHK's historical drama this year tells the story of local heroine Yae, who at the age of 22 and dressed as a man, fought with a Spencer rifle to defend Aizu Castle in 1868. I wrote about the early episodes on 17 February in my post Yae no Sakura
The action has now moved to Kyoto though 23% of Fukushima residents, me included, are still glued to the telly every Sunday night.

History is written by the victors and the generally accepted narrative of the Meiji Restoration is that revolutionaries from Satsuma (southern Kyushu), Choshu (southern Honshu) and Tosa (Shikoku) overthrew the Tokugawa shogunate and after 260 years opened the country to the outside world, heralding in a new era of modernisation and prosperity. Aizu have traditionally been the villains of the piece, linked in the popular imagination with the Shinsengumi who terrorised Kyoto, stigmatised as enemies of the emperor, and portrayed as die-hard supporters of the old regime. The fascination of this series is that it tells this famous period of history from the other side, from the point of view of the losers.

Here are a few scenes which were memorable for me:
  • Yae's first husband Kawasaki Shonosuke, a gunsmith who had studied the 'Dutch learning' in Tokyo, was played delightfully by actor Hasegawa Hiroki. After the fall of Aizu he was banished with the other Aizu samurai to the far north where they had to battle against cold and hunger. He got caught up in a scam when trying to procure food and died in Tokyo in difficult circumstances. Sad. Cried buckets.
  • Many times have I visited the Samurai House (Buke Yashiki) in Aizu and seen the suicide scene, women and children dressed in white kimono, and a soldier, a tall figure in a red wig. I never really knew who they were. They were the family of Saigo Tanomo (played in the drama by Koriyama character actor Nishida Takayuki). He was Aizu daimyo Katamori's most faithful retainer who in 1862 advised against taking on the post of guard of Kyoto as he saw, rightly as it turned out, that Aizu would get embroiled in the troubles which would lead to their ruin. Later he called for an early capitulation. But Katamori took his responsibilities to both the shogun and the Emperor very seriously and Saigo's pleas fell on deaf ears. Twenty one women in Saigo's household - including his wife, mother and five daughters - chose not to take refuge in the castle and committed suicide. The man in the red wig was Itagaki Taisuke (later founder of Japan's first political party) who generously put one young girl out of her misery. Over 240 Aizu women chose to die by their own hand rather than be captured.
  • I've no idea if this is true but in the drama, after the surrender, the proud samurai ladies scrubbed the floors and handed over a pristine castle - to the embarrassment of the enemy leaders who walked over the shiny floors in muddy boots!
  • Yae's older brother, Yamamoto Kakuma, is another hero of this story and was a remarkable man. He had studied in Tokyo under Katsu Kaishu and Sakuma Shozan and believed Japan shouldn't waste its energies on infighting but catch up with the West. He was injured and lost his sight in skirmishes in Kyoto and was later captured by Satsuma forces and thrown into prison. There he dictated his famous work Kanken which was a farsighted master plan for national reform covering such varied topics as government, parliament, education, currency, women's education, military, commerce, medicine etc. etc. and which came to the attention of the new government leaders, Saigo Takamori and Iwakura Tomomi. Kakuma himself, in spite of being crippled and blind, later served in the Kyoto local government. After Aizu fell he summoned his family to Kyoto. Yae married Niijima Jo and he helped them found Doshisha University and Women's College.
  • One of the sub plots of the drama is guns. In 1865 the American Civil War ended and weapons which were no longer needed came to Japan to be traded by James Glover and the like. Yae's family are gunsmiths and Kakuma's mission was to procure up-to-date weapons from abroad. One of the reasons for Aizu's downfall was that they just didn't have the fire power to compete with the superior weaponry of Satusma and Choshu.
  • The role of Saigo Takamori was played with panache by ageing rock star Kikkawa Koji. Always spoiling for a fight, but dissuaded by Katsu Kaishu from attacking Edo (Tokyo), he turned his attention to subjugating the north and later had a key role in the new government. But ten years later The Last Samurai acted as a focus for the disaffected samurai and made one last stand against the government forces. This was the Seinan War of 1877 in which he died. 
Finally, two footnotes to this story, not in the TV series.
First, the new government refused to give permission to bury the bodies of those who fell in Aizu, including all those women and children. Only six months later in the spring of 1869 was permission granted. This was the source of rancour between Aizu and Choshu which rankled for over a century.
Secondly, the Meiji government was dominated by leaders from Choshu and Satsuma. People from Aizu were not appointed to government and again this prejudice persisted until recent times. Instead, many Aizu survivors, like Yae and Kakuma, devoted their efforts to education and many went to study abroad.

Now the action of the series (which continues until December) has moved to Kyoto where Yae is building a new life with Jo. The story holds a strong message of recovery from disaster so has obvious parallels with today. It's also given a great boost to tourism with visitors to the castle up 50% over pre-disaster levels. So in addition to being a good yarn, the series has been very good for Fukushima.
P.S. If you want to read a blow by blow account of the series there's a translation of every episode in English at this site On The Tube

Sunday, 29 September 2013


Sorry I've been off the wire. I've been in hospital. With pneumonia. As summer turned to autumn I must have caught a chill walking to and from work in my summer clothes. Come to think of it, didn't I mention in my last post that I'd left my cardigan on the train? I should pay more attention to those weather people on TV who in nanny-like fashion are forever reminding us to wrap up at the changing of the seasons (kisetsu no kawarime 季節の変わり目)!

So a week in a Japanese hospital, a week's worth of antibiotics and I'm right as rain. As you'd expect everything, from the nursing to the cleaning of the rooms, was efficient and to a high standard. Absolutely no complaints. I had my own room with en suite (5,000 yen extra per day), with an array of remotes to control the bed, the TV, the air conditioning, the lights. The food was Japanese, pretty plain, but palatable. From the 3rd day I chose to have bread at breakfast and lunch. It was a bit odd having, say mackerel in miso sauce, with bread but it was OK. 

I had one X-ray at the local doctors before I went in, then a CT scan and two X-rays at the hospital. That's a massive 7.18 mSv exposure to radiation which makes a mockery of my current attempts to limit additional exposure to 1 mSv/year. According to a book I have Hibaku Iryo Gaido (Guide to Medical Exposure), Japanese average per capita exposure from medical sources is 3.00 mSv/year, as opposed to a world average of 0.6 mSv/year. Strangely, I'm happy with this. I like the way Japanese doctors order lots of tests and only then give you the diagnosis. To me it seems systematic, rational - and reassuring.

And the damage? The bill was for 122,000 yen. When you deduct 35,000 yen for the private room and 4,400 yen for meals, the medical bill (medicines, tests, 7 days stay) was 82,500 yen (550 GBP). I pay 30% of the actual cost. (Incidentally, to cope with hardship, there's a ceiling of about 80,000 yen per month.)

Everyone's required to be covered by one of two national health insurance schemes. I'm satisfied with the way things work here. In England where I come from the NHS is free to all - no money changes hands - which is a great ideal but the system is creaking at the seams for lack of cash and too many people take it for granted. But as Japan prepares to join the TPP (Trans Pacific Partnership) there are fears here that American insurance companies might flood the market and break down this national system. 

Tonight is the last day of the Autumn Festival here in Koriyama. All day the neighbourhood has echoed with the sound of drums and pipes. Now darkness is falling and in the streets chants of Washoi! Washoi! But I'm convalescing and can't join in. It brings home the attraction of Matsuri: an invigorating show of strength, vitality, and love of life.
More later
P.S. October 5th
Looks like I'm going to get about 75,000 yen back from a couple of private health insurance schemes so the damage is looking less (though obviously I've paid in premiums over the years). Follow-up consultation today and I'm much better. CT scan booked for one month's time. Ouch, more radiation .....

Friday, 20 September 2013

Veni, vidi, non vici

There was a big earthquake in the middle of last night. Force 5 at the coast, Force 4 here in Koriyama. A long, low grumble. According to this morning's news, it was an aftershock from 3.11 and we are urged to remain vigilant. Quite frankly there's not a lot you can do when you're woken up at half past two in the morning. Wait for it to end, turn over and go back to sleep. I do have my emergency rucksack packed ready, I've stockpiled two weeks supply of food and water, and I keep the bath full. But I don't sleep in my clothes as I did that first month. 

The Prime Minister visited Fukushima Daiichi yesterday. I saw the cavalcade at Koriyama station yesterday morning as I was waiting for the bus. He's made the monumental decision to urge Tepco to scrap Reactors 5 and 6. Blindingly obvious, I should say. What took him so long? It would be hard to operate these reactors normally while the difficult work of clearing up the damage to Reactors 1 to 4 is carried out, and where radiation levels in some places are extremely high. And socially, the people of Fukushima would never accept it. The governor continues to press for a decision to scrap Fukushima Daini nuclear plant, 11 kilometers to the south, but no word on that yet.

So He came (along with members of the foreign press), He saw and tried to show the world that he's fulfilling the promises he made at the Olympic presentation in Buenos Aires. But the local press weren't allowed into the press conference 'for reasons of space'. Maybe they'd ask too many tricky questions about the leakage of contaminated water into the sea, and voice the fury of the local fishing community.

More important than Abe's 'performance' is the work going on in Tokyo to draft new legislation delineating the responsibilities of the power companies and the state in the nuclear power industry. This is the crux of the problem. Japan has always maintained that the electric companies take care of everything but it's now obvious that a single private company cannot sustain the costs of an accident. Abe has said that the government will step in but there's still a lot of work in the detail.

The government and bureaucracy may be overpaid and useless (common grouch in this country) but the private sector can be outstanding. How's this for an example? On Tuesday I came back from Tokyo and left my cardigan on the shinkansen bullet train. At 3:30 pm I reported it to the Lost Property office in Koriyama. At 7:00 pm I got a phone call saying the garment had been found. Did I want to go to Sendai to pick it up or have it sent to me paying postage on arrival (chakubarai 着払い)? I chose the latter option and at 10:00 am on Thursday the package arrived (I paid 740 yen). Is there any other country so efficient or so trusting?

Last weekend the country was lashed with heavy rain from a typhoon. It cleared the air and now we have glorious autumn weather. 
All the best

Saturday, 14 September 2013

Tokyo Olympics

Tokyo is to  host the Olympics in 2020. Prime Minister Abe swung the vote by asserting that the situation in Fukushima is under control and personally guaranteeing the safety of athletes in Tokyo. The governor of Fukushima has been begging the government to take control ever since the disaster but only when the contaminated water crisis threatened Tokyo's Olympic bid did the government intervene. 

It's been hailed here as an 'international pledge' so we're hoping the government really is going to take charge and get results. Money has been found from this year's budget and a team of vice-Ministers, foreign experts, and frontline specialists are to work on decommissioning the plant and finding solutions to the contaminated water issue. The Prime Minister sounded super-confident but is the situation really 'under control'? Is the 'silt fence' (a net curtain supposed to stem the flow of water) really effective? Is there really no contaminated water escaping into the open sea, as he claimed? 

In the long term things should be under control. In all there will be three walls to contain contamination and stop water going into the sea: the 'frozen wall' around all four reactors (work to start next year and to be completed during fiscal 2014); a seawall already half built and to be completed in December this year; and an earthen wall reinforced with waterglass around several contaminated areas between the reactors and the sea. There has been some trouble with this last one where contaminated water was found to have been flowing over the top of the wall, and also a recent discovery of water flowing from one of the tank areas along a trench and into the open sea, south of the seawall. So all is not quite as under control as Abe seemed to suggest. The immediate crisis of the leaking tanks needs to be solved and there is a serious shortage of staff.  

The government's also pledged to step up overseas PR. The farmers and manufacturers of Fukushima have been fighting this battle for three years now, measuring all their produce, explaining over and over that Fukushima is safe. Now it seems that that battle has to be fought internationally. A cartoon in a French publication showing sumo wrestlers with 3 arms and legs has been widely shown here. In bad taste certainly, but it shows the kind of prejudice one is up against. It wasn't good to hear the person responsible for Tokyo's bid repeatedly say that Tokyo was 250 km from Fukushima so nothing to worry about. For us it only served to reinforce the gulf between us here and the powers-that-be in Tokyo. So in a way we have to thank the foreign journalists who have reminded Tokyo - and the rest of Japan - that Fukushima is a national and international issue.

But it's good that the Olympics are coming to Tokyo. For far too long Japan has been in the doldrums and people have been gloomy. Then there was the disaster. It would be great if the Olympic Torch were carried through a regenerated North East Japan (including Fukushima). The owners of J-Village, the national youth soccer centre which still serves as a dormitory and base for workers at Fukushima Daiichi, are already making plans, hoping that it will have some support role in the Olympics.
Bye for now

Wednesday, 4 September 2013

Contaminated Water

Contaminated Water - osensui  汚染水 - we hear the word all the time but it's another new word which along with the word for Decontamination - josen  除染 -  you won't find in any Japanese dictionary. How our lives have changed.

Contaminated Water, particularly the issue of leaking tanks at Fukushima Daiichi, has been top of the national news and made headlines across the world. After the Prime Minister announced last month that the government would step in, money has been found from this year's budget and a special 'Contaminated Water' post set up within METI (Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry). Today there was an announcement of government plans to tackle the problem. Promises of money (which is welcome) but nothing new.

There are over 1,000 tanks holding 340,000 tons of contaminated water on-site. The current problem is with 300 tanks which are bolted rather than welded together. Yesterday's paper says extremely high airborne radiation of 1,700 mSv/hr has been detected in one of the tank areas. Spare a thought for the 3,000 people working there, in radiation suits, full face masks, and with temperatures still reaching highs of 30'C.

Maybe the government can coordinate policy on contaminated water and work out ways to stop it increasing and ways to deal with it - in place of the stop-gap measures until now. But with the Prime Minister swanning off on foreign trips to sell nuclear power overseas (you'd think he'd get his own house in order first), with no discussion in the Diet (broken up for elections in July and not back until October), there's still a general lack of a sense of crisis. No wonder the fishermen at a meeting with Tepco today were getting very angry indeed.

Electricity bills in our region (Tohoku Electricity) went up on the 1st of the month, the first increase in 33 years. The cost of electricity will rise 9% for households and 15% for businesses. This is the price we have to pay for the nuclear power stations being shut down - the cost of all that imported LNG. But it is strange. There doesn't seem to have been a shortage of electricity this summer - and it was a very hot summer. It does make you wonder what all that saving back in the summer of 2011 was for? There were peak cuts, fines for businesses, everyone was cutting back hard on usage. Maybe if people had kept in saving mode, we wouldn't have needed the price increases? But it seems consumption is back to normal, more fossil fuel LNG is being used, and prices are going up to pay for it. Not a good situation.

There's a typhoon sitting south of Kyushu that won't budge so we've had high humidity (60% on my home thermometer) for the past two days with unsettled weather. Hope it improves by the weekend. I'm going camping!

Monday, 26 August 2013


It was back in June. An acquaintance who lives in the Shima district of Koriyama was grumbling about the decontamination work at her house. First the boss man came, re-moved 5 cm of soil from the garden, took readings and having satisfied him-
self that radiation could be halved (that seems to be the criterion, not to reduce radiation to a certain level), he disappeared leaving sub-contractors to carry out the work. Shrubs and trees were pruned and the top layer of soil removed. Several houses in the vicinity were having work done at the same time so one moment there would be 8 workers in the garden, the next minute - just as she'd taken out some tea (!) - there were none. It took the best part of a week.

She and her husband were complaining that more time seemed to be spent recording and photographing each branch as it was cut, rather than actually doing the work. You have to take this with a grain of salt but you get the picture. At the end of the week they dug a hole about 2 metres by one metre and one metre deep behind the shed at the back of the garden and buried the plastic sacks of soil. Then they covered the garden with rough sand (yamazuna 山砂) which she was convinced was going to kill her plants. I met her a month later and she hadn't yet had the final results which were to come in the post. She's in her 70s and what with the heat she'd found the whole thing stressful. No doubt younger families would have welcomed having the work done.

The city of Koriyama, 60 kms from Fukushima Daiichi, was not evacuated and is not eligible for decontamination at central government expense. But early on the then Mayor decided to carry out its own decontamination plan to reassure residents and stop the outflow of people. Work started in the most heavily contaminated areas (around Ikenodai, Saikon) in October 2012 and is now being rolled out across the city.

I want to point you to an excellent piece of work by Azby Brown on this subject entitled. Decon or Con: How is Remediation being Managed and how effective is it? available on the Safecast website. It's a bit long but clearly written and easy to understand. Safecast, a global voluntary organisation, takes issue with the fact that there is no independent evaluation of decontaminaton (or 'remediation') and sets out to try and compare their readings with official before-and-after readings taken by the government. Accessing the government data seems to have been very time-consuming and Azby deserves credit for ferreting it out.

There are good maps and explanations of the different zones, explanations of how decontamination is to be managed, how the government's dose rate calculations are reached, and estimates of the effects of natural decay and weathering. To summarize, the goal was to reduce radiation in areas over 20mSv/year (the evacuated areas) rapidly to 20 mSv/year and to reduce radiation in other areas (Koriyama included) over the long term to 1 mSv/year. The evacuated areas are to be decontaminated at central government expense and other areas by the local authorities with subsidies etc. While work by local authorities seems to be progressing transparently (despite the grumbles of my friend above), work in the evacuated areas is behind schedule and proving more difficult. To quote, 'By early 2012, when pilot decontamination projects had been completed and the results examined, the government knew they could get areas with dose rates less than 30 mSv/yr down to below 20 mSv/yr, but not if they were originally 40 mSv or above ...'  So the outlook for residents in the exclusion zone is not good.

For those in the 'restricted residence zones' and 'preparing for return zones' things are more ambiguous. Safecast measured two sites to see if decontamination had been effective and to estimate whether it had accelerated natural reduction (weathering and radioactive decay). Results for the two sites were different which highlights the difficulty of this subject but it seems that decontamination is worth doing at higher levels but it's difficult to reduce further to 1 mSv/yr. This is polarising residents into those who say they will go back regardless and those who insist that levels need to be reduced to 1 mSv/yr.

Anyway, check it out here. A good read.
Safecast: Decontamination blog

The headline in yesterday's paper was Forest Levels Reduced by 38%. What this means is that airborne radiation had reduced by natural means (weathering and radioactive decay) in 2012 over the previous year by 38% in forests outside the exclusion zone, 10% of which was attributed to systematic felling of trees. (Seventy percent of Fukushima prefecture is forested.)

So it's a complex question that involves us all, not only those of us who live here but the nation's taxpayers who have to foot the bill. Questions are being raised about the cost-effectiveness of decontamination. Then there's the question of where to put all the soil. Not to mention the thorny question of compensation.
Thanks for reading this

Friday, 23 August 2013

Tomioka video and new comments

If you don't mind I'm going to cop out this time and pass on some of the feedback I've had recently.

You may remember that in June I visited Tomioka, since the end of March redesignated as a 'preparing to return' zone, with a photographer friend from England (Tomioka 1). He has made a video from the images and set it to music. Very moving. Take a look (6 minutes).
Tomioka video

Next, let me draw your attention to a comment on my post Airborne Radiation 1 (24 July 2013) by one DiogeneseNJ who was helpful and reassuring in those difficult days two years ago. He takes issue with my comment that 100 mSv of exposure to radiation causes cancer. I thought this was the received wisdom and the one figure that is generally accepted. However, the RERF (Radiation Effects Research Foundation), a cooperative Japan-US research organisation dating back to Hiroshima, says the 'association remains unclear'. In addition, there is new research (Dec. 2011, Berkeley Lab) on cellular repair processes which does show that exposure is not linear, i.e. low-rate doses are not as damaging as a single dose.

There is also a link to a paper showing how my glass badge worked (clever technology) and a final comment about risk concluding that when you factor in air pollution, Koriyama is probably a healthier place to live than Tokyo! Anyway, see for yourself at the following link. Unfortunately, the links on the comment itself don't seem to connect. You'll have to copy and paste. But worth it. The references are easy to understand.

Here, the news is dominated by the issue of contaminated water leaking into the sea. It's been rated a Level 3 accident. Two more tanks have been found to be leaking - and it's highly radioactive stuff (100 mSv/hour). Japan's nuclear watchdog, the NRA, visited the site today and complained of 'sloppy management' (zusan na kanri), for example radiation around the tanks is neither measured nor recorded. If it had been, the leaks might have been spotted sooner. Things didn't seem too bad at first back in April. But every time something goes wrong, Tepco  apologizes - and then make the same mistakes over and over. The PM has said the government will get involved but there's no money till next year. Action is needed not words.

The other issue being discussed here is the removal of the children's classic manga Barefoot Gen (Hadashi no Gen) about the atomic bombing in Hiroshima from school libraries in Matsue in a burst of political correctness on the grounds that the book shows violence to women and the images might disturb children. Barefoot Gen does depict the grisly reality of the bomb: horrid pictures of people's skin melting and hanging loose. But there's been an uproar. Japan as a country has not been good at facing up to responsibility for causing the War, but it has been good at keeping the horror of war alive. There's a national consensus that war should never be repeated. So most people, I'm glad to say, oppose the banning of this book.

Some welcome rain has given us a few cool days but the heat is to return this weekend.
All the best

Sunday, 18 August 2013


A field of sunflowers planted on the ski slopes at San-no-kura, outside Kitakata
The O-bon holidays are nearly over. Back to work tomorrow. This last week was an odd week, as it always is, with the various ceremonies commemorating the end of the war coinciding with the peak holiday season. I was with an American friend in the mountain resort of Yanaizu at noon on the 15th. That's when the Emporer in 1945 gave his speech on the radio announcing the surrender, known in Japanese as gyokuon (玉音), the 'Jewel Voice'. Loudspeakers summoned the good people of Yanaizu to prayers in the square. 

Thankfully the Prime Minister decided not to visit Yasukuni Shrine this year. It's all very well remembering the war dead but 'A class' war criminals are interred there too and any official visit aggravates relations with China and South Korea. The TV does its best to keep memories of the war alive. One guest on a current affairs show said it's all very well remembering Hiroshima on 6th August, Nagasaki on the 9th and the end of the war on the 15th but Japan should also remember Pearl Harbor and the beginning of hostilities in China. Always interesting, and often shocking, are the reminiscences of people in their 80s and 90s, speaking up at last. As we approach the 70th anniversary, Abe is trying to rewrite the peace constitution so that Japanese forces can defend an ally under attack. It's an interesting time.

Young people from Fukushima were invited to participate in the ceremonies at Nagasaki. I suppose there is a link but I'm afraid that that word 'hibakusha' sends a chill down my spine. Not only did the victims suffer terribly from the atomic bombs but they've also been victims of discrimination and I don't want us lumbered in the same boat. 

But this last week was also holiday time when most companies, certainly up here, take works holidays. I spent it with good friends in the Aizu area. We went up the Tadami River deep into the beautiful area of Oku-Aizu. We saw fields of sunflowers, temples, lakes and mountains. The area's branded itself  'fairy land' and you can see why: it certainly seems a mystical place.

Families having fun at Lake Numazawa - paradise!
The magnificent Tadami River. It has many power stations along its length.
The Tadami River was developed in the early 1950's for hydro-electric power by Shirasu Jiro (educated at Cambridge, interesting man). I came across a book recently when I was tidying up the office called Fukushima: Electricity County published in the 1970s. Local dignitaries showed great pride in Fukushima's contribution to Japan's economic growth and were hailing nuclear power as the next phase with photos of Fukushima Daiichi under construction. So you see, it's not just nuclear, Fukushima has provided power for Tokyo for many, many years.

And finally, Matsuri in Kitakata. The last day of four days of festivities. Can you hear the drums?

Monday, 12 August 2013

Update: 11 August 2013

At last the government's stepped in. PM Abe has recognised the urgency of dealing with the issue of contaminated water at Fukushima Daiichi and said he's no longer going to leave things up to Tepco. Not before time. It's a long running saga. In April and May 2011 there were two spillages in addition to the 10,000 tons Tepco dumped in the sea prompting an international incident. After that a cleaning and recycling system was developed which has been dealing with the water injected to cool the reactors. Then in May this year we heard about problems with underground water: 400 tons a day were pouring down the hill into the reactor buildings and is being pumped out and stored in an ever-increasing number of tanks onsite. In May, Tepco unveiled a plan to bypass the water before it got near the reactors and direct it into the sea but the fishing industry opposed the plan and it got shelved. All the while Tepco denied that any contaminated water had seeped into the sea. Then on 22 July, the day after the Upper House elections (I kid you not), Tepco said it was 'possible' that contaminated water had got into the sea. 

Things went downhill from there: trenches on the seaside of reactors 1 and 2 were found to contain highly radioactive material dating back to the time of the accident; contaminated water had been flowing over the top of a newly built containment wall at high tide. And then the Natural Resources and Energy Agency recently estimated that not 400 tons but 1,000 tons of underground water had been flowing into the nuclear plant every day since May 2011. Of this 400 tons per day had indeed ended up in the bottom of the reactor buildings but 300 tons had seeped into the highly contaminated trenches and from there into the sea, and the remaining 300 tons had flowed uncontaminated into the sea. 

To put this in perspective, we're talking about the shoreline at the plant. Beyond the plant is a seawall, a barrier between the harbour and the open sea. Obviously monitoring of the sea has been stepped up and the beaches in Iwaki to the south were declared safe. But fishing which was supposed to start in a small way in September has been postponed. These revelations have damaged the industry too much. The issue will also affect whether people return to the area, not to mention international relations.

So the Prime Minister is right to take charge. But why wait for next year's budget? There's money from the Recovery Budget that hasn't been spent and what about the money that was mis-spent on non-disaster projects and is supposed to be paid back? It's clear that a private company cannot sustain expenditure on this scale. The government's committed to paying for the 'frozen wall' to be built underground around all four reactors (1,000 rods stretching 1.4 km) and taxpayers will have to pay the electricity bill for this almighty fridge for the next 30 to 40 years - plus myriad other astronomical costs. And nuclear is cheap?
That's all for now

Saturday, 10 August 2013


Hi again
It's hot. The mercury hit 40 degrees centigrade in Shikoku today and it's 33 degrees here in Koriyama. It's Saturday afternoon and even I have switched on the cooler.

I've been away so I guess the heat is getting to me. Maybe I'll have some more peaches. The Fukushima white peaches are so good. So good that every year the very best are presented to the Emperor. Here they pass fruit through a light sensor to measure the sugar content: the sweeter it is, the higher the price. According to the local paper, of 260,000 peaches passed through a light sensor 1,000 with a sugar content of 12% were selected and from these experts picked 180 perfect peaches. The Emperor and Empress are very popular here. They've just paid their third visit since the disaster. During a two day stay, they visited a factory in Iitate in the 'restricted residence' zone, and talked with peach farmers in an attempt to boost confidence in Fukushima fruit and veg.

Summer in Japan means Matsuri. Koriyama and Fukushima cities had their big festivals last weekend (on the same days - these two cities are so competitive) but it's the O-Bon holiday next week (13th to 15th) so there are still lots more festivals and firework displays to come. 

In this region at O-Bon you visit the graves of the ancestors and this seems to be very important to people. Graves in the 'difficult to return' zone have been repaired and decontaminated and former residents (wearing white overalls) are being allowed in. People are also being allowed to stay at their homes in the 'restricted residence' zones for this period only. 

For the kids, summer holidays should be about swimming and playing outside. But is it safe? Professor Takamura from Nagasaki University and an advisor to Fukushima Prefecture writes a column in the local paper once a week. He says that tests carried out in June and July of all school swimming pools, lakes and swimming beaches detected no radioactive material in the water and airborne radiation levels are generally below 0.1 μSv/hour. Even if a child swallowed water when swimming there is no risk of internal exposure, he says. He did say that there is a slight possibility of caesium being stuck to sand but you can wash this away by showering and washing the hair. Same for exercise. He says that if a child played outside in an area of 0.5 μSv/hour for two hours a day, that would be 40 μSv over the summer holidays, the equivalent of a chest X-ray. There are no radioactive materials in the air now so no danger of internal exposure from breathing. But like swimming, best to wash your hands and feet when you come home and shower and wash the hair at the end of the day. Likewise, rinse any cuts and grazes. The benefits of running around outside and getting Vitamin D from the sun outweigh any worries. Sorry this is a bit technical but it's practical advice and I thought I'd pass it on. Probably sensible advice, wherever you live in the world ...
Now if you'll excuse me, I'll go and get that peach ..

Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Airborne Radiation 2

Hello again,
Last time I talked about the survey meter that I borrowed for a week from the city office. This time I'll share the results of the dosimeter that I borrowed from the same place for a month. It's a bit like a blue thermometer that you carry around in a pocket or on your belt.and it calculates accumulated radiation. The city asks you to record the results every day along with an estimate of how many minutes you were outside and where you were.

For me, it was clocking 2 μSv/day. At the end of the month this was worked out to 0.65 mSv/year which after subtracting natural radiation in Koriyama of 0.35 mSv/year left me with only 0.3 mSv/year in additional radiation as a result of the accident, well below the government target of 1 mSv./year. When I handed the dosimeter back I was told that it was low probably because I live and work in concrete buildings 7 and 8 floors up and I don't go outside much (usually less than an hour a day). I was told that many people are recording more than 1 mSv/year.

Incidentally, this 1 mSv/year does refer to radiation over and above natural radiation. (The term in Japanese is  年間追加被ばく線量 nenkan tsuika hibaku senryo.) But even so, natural radiation is so low here that even with the additional radiation, levels are still lower than many places in the world.

This is a point that the authorities are keen to stress and the Fukushima prefecture website now has banners and links showing comparative levels in other parts of the world. And you might be interested to check out Safecast, an independent organisation which monitors levels throughout the world and also here in Fukushima.
Next time, I'll look at the decontamination that's going on in Koriyama at the moment.
Bye for now

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Airborne Radiation 1

I've been trying to get to grips again with radiation levels in this town. The last time I did this was two years ago. Levels which had been as high as 8 μSv/hour on 15 March 2011 fell to 2 in the summer of that year. Now they're down to about 0.3. That's micro sieverts (μSv) per hour. There are 1,000 micro sieverts in 1 milli sievert (mSv). 100 mSv (in a single dose, over the long term, over a lifetime?) cause cancer.

Koriyama has natural airborne radiation equivalent to 0.35 mSv/year. In normal times the ICRP dose limits are 1 mSv/year for members of the public and 20 mSv/year for radiation workers (for 5 years). After the accident at Fukushima Daiichi, areas over 20 mSv/year were evacuated. But there was confusion over what were safe levels for the rest of us. ICRP emergency standards were for a band of 1 to 20 mSv/year. There was outrage when the Japanese government set the acceptable exposure level for children at 20 mSv/year (the same as for evacuation) so they eventually brought it down to 1 mSv/year. Koriyama City is committed to decontaminating all areas to 0.23 μSv/hour which equates to 1 mSv/year.

Two years ago there was only one monitoring post in Koriyama. Now, we have monitoring posts outside every school and nursery and in every park. And the City is offering free use of monitoring equipment. So about a month ago I pitched up at the ground floor of city office and borrowed a survey meter and a dosimeter. The survey meter (pictured below) measures levels of airborne radiation and I was able to borrow it for a week (14 to 20 June). The dosimeter measures accumulated exposure and I wore it on my belt for a month. Today let's look at the survey meter.

Outside city office - a standard 0.235 μSv/hour

The meter resets every 30 seconds and the first thing you notice is that levels are constantly changing. So it's important to realise that the monitoring posts set up outside schools and parks only show levels at that position and at that moment in time. Two meters away and the reading could be quite different. 

I found that my meter showed consistently higher levels than the monitoring posts (for example it was 0.365 μSv/hr on the post at Hayama no Yakata Park but showed 0.445 on my meter). When I mentioned this to the staff as I handed the meter back I was told that lots of people had made the same comment and that levels do vary according to the equipment used. The highest variance was at the post at the prefectural office (godo chosha) which is the official reading you see in the papers for Koriyama which when I was there showed 0.19 but the reading on my meter was 0.336. The monitoring post there was different from the others. Perhaps it takes an average over a longer period. I'd like to know the reason for the difference.

Generally speaking, levels were about 0.075 μSv/hr in my apartment and 0.09 in my office. There was not much variation between the rooms and whether the window was open or closed. I was told these are low because they are both concrete buildings and on the 7th and 8th floors. In the car, levels were about 0.2. Outside, levels varied from 0.2 on the east side of the city to 0.3 around the station area and 0.5 in the west. The highest I recorded was 0.9 in a park in the west after rain.

A lot of decontamination work is being done but actual levels were often higher than those shown on signs put up a few days or a week or so ago. Decontamination is needed but the winds blow, the rain falls and the levels change all the time. One thing I can say: don't go near any bags of soil, don't go near when they're doing decontamination work. Levels are high.

The whole thing was stressful and I was glad to hand the meter back.

BTW levels for Aizu were low at 0.1 μSv/hr,  Inawashiro and Ura Bandai were 0.07, the same as indoor measurements in Koriyama.
More on the dosimeter and decontamination soon.
PS Good discussion of the variation in monitoring posts here
PPS Place your bets on the name for the Royal Baby. Favourite is 'George' followed by 'James'.