Tuesday 11 March 2014

Over and Out

It's 3 years since that fateful day, 11th March 2011, 2:46 in the afternoon. The day everything changed and time stood still. It's become a measure of time. People talk of things happening 'before the disaster' (shinsaimae 震災前) and 'after the disaster' (shinsaigo 震災後). But there's little appetite here for anniversaries. The nuclear disaster is not something that's over and done with. There are 130,000 people still displaced, most of whom still have no clear idea of their future or where they will live. Contaminated water continues to accumulate at Fukushima Daiichi. Reactor 4 is the only one which people can go into. Radiation is so high in the other three that no one can get near. The radioactive materials that fell over Fukushima prefecture have been collected but the interim storage facilities have not yet been completed so the stuff sits in people's gardens, parks and schools. In the former exclusion zone decontamination is progressing but it's way behind schedule; it will only be carried out once; and it does not cover the woods. No, the accident is far from over.

I've been privileged (is that the right word? I think it is) to have shared the earthquake and the nuclear disaster with the people of Fukushima. But now my company's work is done and the office is moving to Tokyo (I will be based in Tokyo but spending more time in England). I've spent a heartbreaking few weeks saying goodbye to people I've known for over 30 years. And I've decided to end this blog. Some say I should continue from a distance but that doesn't seem right. I wrote it because I read the local papers, watched the local news, talked to people, walked around taking everything in with my eyes and ears, and camera. I don't want to be another commentator, a casual observer who comes and goes with no commitment to the place. There are too many of those already. So this will be my last post.

It's been a life changing experience. There were no phones or electricity for the first few days after the disaster. No water for a week. We all learnt to be self reliant. I bet there isn't a household in Fukushima that doesn't have at least two weeks' stock of food and water, and gas for heat and cooking. People get used to being able to buy anything from the convenience store at any time of day or night and don't know how to cope when things go wrong. We've learnt to stand on our own two feet, take charge, and depend on no one.

We also learnt to be aware and question important issues that affect our lives. I personally am still undecided about nuclear power. It may be a necessary interim measure to prevent the serious worldwide consequences of global warming. Fukushima prefecture has proclaimed - for obvious reasons and quite rightly - that it will be non nuclear and I uphold that stance. But we should all be concerned about nuclear waste. Before the disaster I don't think many people in Japan were aware that spent fuel was stored at the plants with nowhere to go. Worryingly, Abe's recently announced 'Energy Plan' made no mention of nuclear waste. Finland justifies its use of nuclear power through its construction of an underground facility where the waste will be buried until it is safe - 100,000 years. A facility in France is storing the waste for 100 years hoping that technology to dispose of the waste safely will be developed by then. People in Fukushima have seen the piles of waste in their own backyards and experienced the fear it brings. And this is only low level waste. The spent fuels and waste from decommissioning are much more dangerous. Reprocessing (in order to re-use the waste as fuel) produces plutonium which can be used for nuclear weapons. For these reasons the vast majority of Japanese citizens favour a gradual withdrawal from nuclear power. The current government seems set on re-opening the country's nuclear plants. One hopes public opinion will win out over the long term.

Koriyama, the second largest city in the Tohoku region after Sendai, has done pretty well attracting 'recovery' funding. A big national research institute for renewables, known here as Sansohken 産総研, is to open on April 1st. New buildings are going up on those empty plots of land I mentioned last year. New shops are being built to fill the gaps on the main road from the station. 

Finally, I'd like to pay tribute to the women and young people of Fukushima. After the earthquake the children had a month off school and the scenes on the TV were horrific. Families here suffered severe stress over fears of radiation and many families were separated. It's still common for the husband to work in Fukushima and his family to live somewhere else. March is graduation time, the end of the school year, and in interviews on TV and essays written by children many of them say they want to join the police or fire department, or become teachers and nurses for they saw these people in action after the disaster and admired the way they took charge. Or if a kid wants to be, say a baseball player, they'll add that then they'll be able to work with kids and give them a good time. Older students often say they'll go to university in Tokyo to get qualifications but hope to come back to help. Children were traumatised but the women here protected the children and the children have become strong, committed and public spirited. You can't help but feel optimistic about Fukushima's future.

Thank you for reading this blog. If it wasn't for your support I would never have kept it going.
Good bye,

Friday 7 March 2014


All eyes are on the village of Miyakoji (都路) where the ban is to be lifted - the first ban to be lifted in what used to be the exclusion zone (that 20 km concentric circle slapped round Fukushima Daiichi in March 2011). In April 2012 the area was designated an 'area to be prepared for the lifting of the ban' and this will come into effect on April 1st. One year later evacuees from the area will have their compensation payments stopped.

Miyakoji, population 357, is in a country area adjoining Namie and Okuma on Route 288 (known locally as Nipapa). Two years ago, in May 2012 after the area was reorganised, we travelled by car along that road through Miyakoji (which was deserted) to try and glimpse the barricades bordering the exclusion zone but we were turned back by police.
Kawauchi mura

The government says that since decontamination work was completed in August last year, the area is ready to be repatriated. Radiation levels are reported to be under 4 mSv/year. The local authority is to reopen the junior high and high school, build shops and try to attract investment. The government will give additional compensation to those who decide to return but monthly payments of 100,000 yen for 'psychological stress' will stop for all residents, wherever they live.

The residents first found out about this last summer and managed to delay the plan, putting the opening off from November last year to this April. The village is split between those who want to go back and get on with farming and those who want more reassurances. These include: repeating the decontamination work already done in order to reduce levels, clean the woods (which haven't been decontaminated yet), continue monitoring radiation, issue dosimeters, carry out health checks etc.

A friend who's a reporter for the Mainichi Shimbun has written an article entitled 'Bureaucrats are Clever' which has had thousands of hits. He attended the meetings with local residents and explains how the bureaucrats managed to push the plan through even though the majority of residents were not happy about the ban  being lifted at this stage. He says they did not respond to residents' concerns such as: If the woods aren't going to be cleaned, will those who make their living there get compensated? What level of radiation is safe for children? The village needs to be safe: why are you planning to build an incinerator for radioactive materials here? The bureaucrats even resorted to quoting the Constitution at them (Article 22, freedom to live where you please) to justify their decision.
Kanryo wa atama ga iin desu (Japanese only)

It's a rum business.
March 19. Fujiwara Akio's article has appeared in the English version of the Mainichi. Worth reading. Bureaucrats are smart

Sunday 2 March 2014


I had lunch last week with a couple of guys I got to know from the Kasetsu (temporary shelter) in Koriyama for evacuees from Tomioka. I mentioned the article I'd seen in the paper about new homes to be built for occupation next year, 67 houses in Otama village about 10 miles north of Koriyama and 87 in Miharu, a town about 10 miles to the east. (Incidentally these are the first detached houses to be built, as opposed to flats.) 
  'Yeah, but there's nothing like enough' one of them said, 'There are 800 people here.'
  'So when do you think you'll be moving?' I asked.
  'Well, not this year. Next year, maybe?'

  'What's your biggest problem?' I asked.
  'We're tired', he said, 'and stressed. And it's getting worse, if anything. '
He went on to say, that he and his mate, were OK. They get out and about, and join in the activities that are organised. But many people won't go out. A lot of people are isolated and won't join in. He told me there had been some deaths, people dying alone and nobody knowing about it. (There's a word for it in Japanese koritsushi 孤立死.) But he said it caused such a scandal the welfare people were going around every day now so it probably wouldn't happen again.

These two guys seem OK. They try to take life day by day and look on the bright side. But it can't be easy. One of them, who is in his eighties has already paid for his funeral at a nearby funeral parlour in Koriyama. He's resigned to never going back to Tomioka. Though I have to say he looks extremely fit and well and unlikely to kick the bucket soon.

As we approach the third anniversary, the total number of people who have evacuated as a result of the nuclear accident totals 130,000 with 28,500 of these in kasetsu, the barrack style flimsy prefabs. There are plans to build 3,700 homes by March 2016 and a further 1,190 homes thereafter. But the plans are delayed. Soaring costs and a shortage of labour has meant tenders for public works have not been met. Only 576 homes, a tenth of the total planned, will be completed within this fiscal year.
So people sit it out. They should scream and shout some more. But that's not the way people from Fukushima do things ....
Snow almost gone. A grey Sunday morning.

Tuesday 25 February 2014

Trouble Again

A week since the Big Snow. We've been treated to the unusual sight of trucks taking the snow away and there are diggers knawing at side roads and car parks in an attempt to remove the ice. Even with temperatures above zero this past week, Koriyama is a windy city and the snow has stayed frozen. But today we had rain. That's novel: the first rain in four months. So maybe the ice will start to melt.

Recently I said all was quiet at Fukushima Daiichi but there's been a fresh incident. Last Wednesday (19 Feb.) contaminated water was mistakenly diverted to a storage tank which overflowed, leaking 100 tons of contaminated water. An alarm had rung 9 hours previously but was ignored. But there was worse to come. It seems that valves had mistakenly been left open and, after the accident, mysteriously closed. Tepco has interviewed over 100 staff but not yet got to the bottom of the matter. 

I know they're short of staff and the staff are tired but these kind of mistakes would seem to hint at basic problems in the overall management of Fukushima Daiichi. And it's particularly worrying as proposals to re-open Japan's closed reactors are currently under consideration and 10 reactors at 6 plants could be opening in the next few months. 

On a different note, Azby Brown of Safecast, the independent organisation which measures radiation worldwide, has been to Geneva to talk to the IAEA. Great job, guys. Very informative post here:
Azby in Geneva

Bye for now

Monday 17 February 2014

Interim Storage

Photo from TV programme 'Interim Storage Facilities Go Off Course'
(TV Asahi, 11 February 2014)
There’s been some progress recently on the issue of the ‘interim storage facilities’ which will take the contaminated soil currently piled up at schools, parks and gardens all over the prefecture and store it for 30 years. ‘Progress’ might not be the right word. A programme shown on TV Asahi on 11 February had the title ‘Interim Storage Facilities Go Off Course’ (Meiso suru Chukan Chozo Shisetsu 迷走する中間貯蔵施設).

We first heard about this plan in August 2011 from the then Prime Minister, Naoto Kan. This cumbersome new phrase has become part of the vernacular, shortened to ‘interim storage’ (chukan chozo) and even ‘interim‘ (chukan). Everyone knows what it means, everyone knows they’re key to getting back to normal - but no one of course wants one in their back yard. The facilities will take an estimated 35 million tons of soil, foliage etc. from decontamination work in Fukushima prefecture. (The more toxic waste from the reactors themselves, from decommissioning, will be stored at the plant.)  

Last year the Environment Ministry proposed sites in three towns and carried out geological tests. The sites are in: Okuma and Futaba next to Fukushima Daiichi in the exclusion zone, and Naraha further south near Fukushima Daini where radiation levels are relatively low. 
Map of towns which will host proposed storage sites:
 Futaba and Okuma in the north around Fukushima Daiichi
and Naraha in the south near Fukushima Daini
From the start it seemed cruel to have a storage facility in Naraha just when it was announced that preparations were to be started to lift the ban and people were beginning to think about returning. A new mayor was elected on the basis of his opposition but he’s had to backtrack. In December the Environment Minister announced that a total of 19 of land in the three towns would be purchased (nationalised) for the facilities. In January the Mayor of Naraha told the governor that they would only accept low level waste, nothing over 100,000 bq/kg. Governor Sato seems to have done a deal which he is trying to negotiate with central government. Okuma and Futaba will take the waste over 100,000 bq/kg but there is to be no increase in the size of the sites there. In order to reduce the volume, wood trimmings etc. with levels of 8,000 to 100,000 bq/kg. would be incinerated and the ash stored in Naraha. It’s a tortuous process, all about negotiating conditions.
The 'temporary sites' (kariokiba) in use now
Plan for the 'interim storage facility in Naraha.
Bottom right is Fukushima Daini nuclear plant.
The other point of course is that these sites are supposed to be ‘interim’ - with a life of 30 years. After which time the stuff is supposed to be moved elsewhere. The Environment Minister has said he will try and get this made into law but who knows what will happen in 30 years time? The local people are right to be sceptical.

The government hopes to have the first trucks arriving in January next year. There's a lot of negotiating to do before that can happen.
Photos from TV programme, 'Interim Storage Facilities Go off Course' (Meiso suru Chukan Chozo Shisetsu 迷走する中間貯蔵施設TV Asahi, 11 Feb. 2014 

Sunday 16 February 2014


Outside the station yesterday
Extreme weather in the UK, in the US and here in Japan. Another weekend of record-breaking snow, not just here but in Tokyo and Osaka too. Yesterday there was a blizzard even here in the city of Koriyama with the snow sweeping horizontal in the wind. The ice cut into your face and it was hard to stay upright. I've never experienced anything like it. I was supposed to go to Aizu but all the trains were cancelled and the expressways closed.

This Sunday morning there is a foot of snow but temperatures are above zero (for the present) and the snow is melting. I am so glad I live in an apartment. Friends have been clearing the heavy snow from their houses and workplaces and are exhausted.

Yesterday the TV screen was framed with information banners as it was after the disaster three years ago but this time entitled 'The Big Snow' (ooyuki 大雪). Along with traffic information was Tepco's announcement that it was calling off most outside work at Fukushima Daiichi for the day. Routine work these days includes setting up more storage tanks for contaminated water, doing test runs for the ALPS (Advanced Liquid Processing System) which when it gets going again will remove almost all nuclides from the stored water, building a wall along the sea side of the plant, and removing the fuel assemblies from Unit 4. In the past Tepco has made blunders which hit the headlines only to be followed by PR exercises referred to cynically here as the 'Fukushima Daiichi theatre' (gekijoo). But things have been pretty quiet recently.

Amongst the snow and wind people have been cheered by the exquisite performance in the short programme of 19 year old skater Hanyu Yuzuru who won a gold and set an Olympic record. He comes from Sendai and his house was destroyed in the earthquake so it's a real boost for people in the north of Japan.
Monday: Still bad today. Schools closed. Only a few buses running. No bread or bento in the shops.

And this morning ...

Monday 10 February 2014

Elections in the Snow

It started snowing on Friday night and didn't stop until Sunday morning. There's about 6 inches in Koriyama and about the same in Tokyo - very unusual, the heaviest snowfall in 45 years. Six thousand people were stranded at Narita airport overnight on Saturday. 

In the driving snow the Democratic Party of Japan (Minshuto 民主党)still smarting from their defeat in the polls last year held its party conference in Koriyama. With two ex-prime ministers in attendance, the town was crawling with plain clothes police all weekend. The party has proclaimed it will be a viable opposition and as a sop to the locals here is proposing that land where the interim storage facilities for radioactive waste are to be built, should not be nationalised. If the local authorities and landowners don't remain in charge, runs the argument, the stuff will remain there permanently.

Incidentally, that long phrase 'interim storage facilities for radioactive waste' (and by interim, they mean for the next 30 years) is nowadays referred to here simply as 'interim storage' (chukan chozo 中間貯蔵). All this new vocabulary ...

The Tokyo electorate braved the snow on Sunday (well a third of them did) (correction: later the turnout was updated to 46%) and voted in as their Mayor former health minister Masuzoe and not former PM Hosokawa who was calling for an immediate end to nuclear power. He came in third. To give him his due Masuzoe, reflecting 60% of Japanese public opinion, does say he wants to get out of nuclear over the long term - but gradually. The worry of course is that PM Abe will take Hosokawa's defeat as approval for re-opening the idle reactors.

It seems that issues such as the economy, welfare and disaster prevention are uppermost in people's minds. Masuzoe has pledged to cut waiting lists for nurseries and for old people's homes, and to start immediately on anti-disaster work (putting electric cables underground, repairing raised expressways and dealing with high fire risk areas) He's also promised the best Olympics ever in 2020. I guess he's a safe pair of hands. He needs to be. Tokyo commands a budget the size of Sweden and there's a lot to do.
Bye from a snowy Koriyama

Sunday 2 February 2014

From Factory to Supermarket

Opening of new Hohacho store of York Benimaru, Saturday 1 February 2014 
Those of you who have been following this blog from the beginning will know that in the midst of the disaster we were negotiating the sale of the packaging factory I inherited from my Japanese husband 25 years ago, with Rengo the industry leader in Japan. The sale went through and in September 2011 the factory moved to another site in Koriyama. That left us with the old factory site, just 10 minutes walk from the east side of Koriyama station. We have been in talks with York Benimaru, a supermarket chain based in Koriyama, part of the Ito Yokado group, and I'm happy to report that the new Hohacho supermarket opened yesterday.

I took part in the ribbon cutting ceremony (teepu katto, in Japanese!) yesterday morning. There were queues at the doors and later the place was packed with shoppers taking advantage of cut price offers. I happened to meet a couple of people who used to work in the factory and they seemed pleased with the reincarnation. For two years the site has been empty and it's good to see the place full of life and light again.

The boss of York Benimaru seemed pleased with his new shop. And he reminisced about old times. There is a pleasing symmetry in all this. The current CEO is third of four brothers, all involved in the business. His older brother was my husband's closest friend and a director of our company until he died about ten years ago. I wasn't able to sort the company out in Zenjiro's lifetime. But now it's done - with the help of his younger brother. The old adage about business in Japan being based on long term relationships has proved right in this case. There were some difficulties in the development of this site but relationships going back 30 years certainly helped us reach this satisfactory conclusion. 

The boss also mentioned, by the way, that we were lucky with the timing. There's a real shortage of labour in the construction industry in Japan at the moment. The ratio of jobs to job seekers is 3 to 1. He said he's had to delay the opening of other stores later this year.

So for me, another major project finished. On to the next chapter ....

Saturday 25 January 2014

Peace of Mind for Parents

Hi folks
There's no snow in Koriyama at the moment though it's cold. Very cold. The upside is that on fine days, like yesterday, we can enjoy wonderful views of the snow-clad mountains to the west against clear blue skies.

Koriyama city has just published figures of a survey of over 9,000 pre-school children who carried dosimeters for 70 days from September to November last year. The average additional exposure (i.e. in addition to natural radiation) works out at 0.44 of a millisievert per year, way below the 'safe' target of 1 mSv/year. When they did the same survey last year the average was 0.52, so levels are definitely going down. But as I've said many times, it's nothing to worry about. You get the same amount of radiation in Hong Kong (0.23 μSv/hr Safecast) and with its open spaces, and no pollution from China, Koriyama must be a healthier place to live.

The city's doing these surveys because it wants people to come back. 150,000 people have been displaced due to the nuclear accident, of these 48,900 have moved to other parts of Japan (or abroad). That's a lot of people. (The figure peaked at 62,000 in March 2012 but fell below 50,000 for the first time last October.) Of these, about half are estimated to be 'voluntary evacuees', mainly mothers and children. I personally know four families in this situation. One friend and her young child moved to Hokkaido after the disaster but came back last summer. Another friend's teenage daughters went on to high school in Kyoto and won't be coming back. Two more with primary school age children are still living in Tokyo, wondering whether to come back when their free rent runs out in March next year. 

At the dentists this morning I noticed a poster. If parents take their children's milk teeth to their local dentist, they will be sent to Tohoku University's Dental Research Centre in Sendai and analysed for radioactive substances (there's been some scare-mongering on the internet about Strontium 90 getting into bones). Parents will get the results. The lengths people in every walk of life go to to get data is impressive. Fukushima children are becoming the most studied children in the world!
I found details of the project here: Fukushima Minpo article (in Japanese)
That's all for now. Bye.

Monday 20 January 2014

New Year Plans

The new year is a time for resolutions and plans for the future. But Toden's new business plan has not got down well here. Buoyed by the current government's support for nuclear power, Toden (sorry, Tepco, in English - Tokyo Electric Power Company) plans to get the Kashiwazaki nuclear plant on the Japan Sea coast in Niigata  working again by July which will put the company back in profit by March next year. If the plant opens, they will even reduce electricity bills. If it doesn't open, bills will go up. That's the deal. Take it or leave it. People here are angry. They feel safety's not priority. 

There are seven reactors at Kashiwazaki. Three of them (reactors 2, 3 and 4) have been closed since the Chuetsu earthquake in 2007 when there was a fire. The governor of Niigata, Mr Izumida, is going to take some persuading, and now with anti-nuclear candidates standing in the Tokyo Mayor election things are looking complicated.

Other parts of Toden's plan include a government promise to increase its interest-free lending from 5 trillion to 9 trillion yen, and pay for interim storage facilities (1.1 trillion yen). 2.5 trillion yen's worth of decontamination costs are to be funded from the sale of Tepco shares (hmm ... wonder who's going to buy those?) and there are cost-cutting measures.

On the other hand you have to admire the new plan put forward by the town of Okuma. This administrative district spreads from east to west in a thin strip with Fukushima Daiichi on the coast at its north-eastern tip. Before the disaster there were 11,500 inhabitants, all now evacuated. From its offices in Aizu, the town's planners envisage repatriating the area in four stages starting from the east. So the infrastructure - roads, railways, utilities - will be repaired, new shopping and medical centres built, in five year chunks, with the area next to Fukushima Daiichi completed in 20 years time, by 2033. Work is to start next year on trying to attract inward investment in decommissioning technology, robotics and factory farming. But the plan is not without its problems, 96% of the population used to live near the coast where radiation levels are high and the effectiveness of decontamination as yet unknown, and there's also a plan to build storage facilities for radioactive waste. Nonetheless, pamphlets describing the plan have been distributed to residents. I wish them luck!