Wednesday 29 February 2012

Monitoring Mad

Hi folks,
Monitoring posts have sprung up everywhere in schools and parks (see photos below). You can tell at a glance what the radiation is in the air at that point and you can check the measurements in 'real time' here on the Ministry of Education's website. Over 7,000 posts have been set up in the prefecture.

Then the Environment Ministry has issued maps showing results of a survey late last year in which radiation levels in the air were measured every 100 metres over the whole prefecture. They were carried out to aid the clean up but seem to have thrown up more problems. For instance, the highest level was at a point 4 km west of Fukushima Daiichi (84.9 μSv/hr - definitely bad for health), but 4 km north of the reactor, in the very same village of Futaba, levels were only 1.1 μSv/hr - what they were in Koriyama until recently. Just shows the complexity of the task ahead and the dilemma for those residents who're wondering whether to return.

Then we have food for all school lunches in Koriyama now being checked for radiation three days before it's prepared. More machines for testing food (thanks to the Red Cross). You can now go along and test your own fruit and veg and well water. Mobile 'whole body counters' touring the schools (all those under 18 to  be checked by late next year). Not to mention the glass badges children wear and have to hand in every 2 months to have 'accumulated radiation' measured.

 I suppose it's to reassure us and show that something's being done. And it is reasssuring to see the levels going down. But still no clear answers on the big question: risks to health of long term radiation.

Report just out on how the government responded to the crisis in those first five days. No information, no coordination, a mess. A few weeks ago there was a scandal when it became known that no one had had the sense to put a tape recorder on the table - there are no minutes of that time. Scandalous. Then the US capped this by publishing their minutes, over 3,000 pages, as well as tape recordings. To demonstrate that nuclear is safe in American (or European) hands?

Sorry, I'm being cynical. I'll leave you with the photos.
Still cold here and snow forecast for tomorrow.
Good night

Takase Primary School about five miles out of town where my kids went to school. Can you see the monitor outside the classroom window?  (0.166 μSv/hr)

Haga Primary School, a bit further in (0.291 μSv/hr).

The park near my apartment (0.438 μSv/hr).

And why do levels remain so high in Sakabuta Park (1.319 μSv/hr)? A lovely park in a posh part of town.

Thursday 23 February 2012

Whither nuclear?

A friend sent this article from the BBC entitled, 'New nuclear has 'lots of support' locally - EDF Energy'.  (27 January) (Incidentally, for readers in Japan, EDF stands for Electricite de France. In a privatised industry foreign companies own large slices of UK electricity generation and supply. Gas, water, telephone, railways too.)
I quote, 'Germany imposed a moratorium on future nuclear expansion after Fukushima but the UK's nuclear inspector has said there is no reason to put plans on hold to replace the UK's existing plants as they are decommissioned from 2016 onwards.' The UK plans on building 8 new reactors by 2025.
"The debate is different and definitely more reasoned because there is a deeper understanding of the risks", opines Bob Brown, corporate director of Sedgemoor District Council in Somerset.
BBC News: New Nuclear has 'lots of support'

'A deeper understanding of the risks'. I wonder what he means. Maybe he should spend a week here. But let's look at nuclear and let me put in my two penn'orth from Fukushima.

In my view, nuclear power poses a security risk. It's easy to think it won't happen to you. "One council official said residents near Hinkley Point had lived in the shadow of nuclear power for a long time and were aware how conditions differed in the UK and Japan." Well you may not have earthquakes and tsunami in England, I'll grant you that. But there is a terrorist threat and there are many crazy people in the world. Accidents do happen. People make mistakes. Fukushima was a boring backwater that nobody had ever heard of and now it's famous for all the wrong reasons. Perhaps the residents of Hinkley Point might be interested in this piece of news. A few weeks ago a government committee produced their interim report on whether iodine tablets should have been issued at the time of the accident. Their conclusion was that they should have been but logistically it was impossible. So their recommendation is that all households within a 30 km range of a nuclear power plant be issued with iodine tablets. The logistics of backup distribution in case of an emergency are being worked out and the proposal should come into law in the summer. Now if this was rolled out worldwide and residents near all nuclear plants were issued with iodine tablets, would this focus people's attention on how an accident might afffect them personally?

In retrospect, we may have got off lightly. No one has died. But you only have to read my blog of the last eleven months to see how our lives have changed as a result of the accident. I wouldn't wish this on anyone.

The other argument against nuclear power is the disposal of waste which still has no long term solution. Just on a small scale, Koriyama currently has 250,000 tons (that's 25,000 trucks worth) of  low level waste (the top 5 cm of soil scraped from school playgrounds etc) that it can't dispose of. The plan is to dump it in a landfill site near one of the refuse plants on the outskirts of town but the locals won't have it. And this is nothing compared to the high level waste created by decommissioning. The Victorians gave us black buildings and global warming. We've managed to clean the soot off the buildings but climate change threatens our survival. What are we going to leave the next generation? Sustainability is supposed to be the keyword but the waste from nuclear fission makes nuclear energy unsustainable. There should be a moratorium on new nuclear plants with resources going into research on nuclear fusion and on clearing up the mess we've already made.

And then there is the argument that we need nuclear power to provide enough electricity and to meet carbon reduction targets. Last summer Japan as a nation cut its peak electricity usage by 15%. (Incidentally, it's emerged recently that estimates for usage were exaggerated. Some companies are preparing to sue the electric companies for the extra costs.) I would say that if people get serious about it, big reductions can be made in demand. Only two of Japan's 54 nuclear reactors are currently in operation and these are due to shutdown for routine tests mid April. The country is still working and the Minister of the Economy recently said he thinks we can get through the summer without nuclear.

We do have to cut emissions. Interestingly, even though Japan depended for 30% of its energy needs on nuclear power, now, with most nuclear plants shutdown, Japan's emissions have actually gone down due to reductions in usage and promotion of energy efficiency (grants for eco-cars, appliances etc.).

Certainly, alternative energy needs to be developed. But necessity is the mother of invention. The governor has declared Fukushima will be nuclear free and there isn't a day goes by without you hearing of some new source of energy being developed. From the small Fukushima company that's developed a small turbine that will produce electricity from  a mere 1 metre fall of water, to the news that the seas around Japan are rich in metanhydrate. Then there are solar panels and a plan for a flotilla of floating wind turbines (world first) off the coast here. This is where people's energies and jobs should be focussed, on a clean, safe and sustainable future.

I used to think these difficult questions should be worked on by the people who know best. But I've changed my mind. I now think that these are much more basic value judgements and we can all have a view. I've mentioned this guy before but take a look at David Mackay's book 'Sustainable Energy - without the hot air'. It's an attempt to get us all thinking in practical terms about the energy mix we're prepared to accept. The link below is to the 10 page synopsis of the book (the book is free to download, by the way) and on page 6 there are various plans you can look at. 

Still cold here in Koriyama. But rain today not snow.
Good night.

Monday 13 February 2012

Happy Valentine's Day

Here Valentine's Day is to chocolate as Easter is to Easter Eggs in Europe. There was a time when you felt obliged to give your boss chocolate on Valentine's Day, a custom known as giri choco 義理チョコ , but that seems to be on the way out. Now people buy chocolates for their friends and relatives, and even for themselves. Who can blame them when the selection is so tempting? I couldn't resist buying these.  Saison de Setsuko, a new range from established chocolatier Mary, has the prettiest chocolates and they're on a Japanese theme, flavoured with soy sauce, yuzu citrus, green tea and sesame. I even tasted some wasabi horseradish chocolates but the recipient of this box will be happy to know there are none included. An acquired taste. The fan-shaped chocolates are by a traditional (Japanese) sweet shop in Kyoto.

Another trend, especially among teenagers, seems to be to make your own. The shops are full of tiny baking pans, foil cases and decorative toppings to make your own home made cakes and chocolates. And there's an amazing selection of  boxes, ribbons and bags to wrap them up in too. Kawaii!

Lucky you if you have a sweetheart. Make the most of the day.

Japanese flavoured chocolates

So many kawaii decorations, so hard  to choose ...

Saturday 11 February 2012

Eleven Months On

Coming up to the anniversary. How are we doing 11 months on? In December the Prime Minister proclaimed the 'end of the nuclear accident'. He meant that the emergency stage of the accident was over but his remarks didn't go down well here. As far as we're concerned the accident won't be over until the reactor is closed in 40 years time. And how safe is it anyway? As if to prove us right, there has been a string of minor problems in the last month. Frozen pipes, leaks (though only on a very minor scale), then the news these last few days that one of the thermometers on the compression chamber of Unit 2 was registering temperatures of 73'C. It turns out that some work had been done on the pipes taking water in for cooling and it's thought that afterwards the cooling was uneven causing the temperature to rise in a certain place. It's falling steadily, currently 68'C, and the other thermometers are reading 40'C. Nonetheless, temperatures of 80' could jeopardise the status of cold shutdown, so, no,  the accident is far from over.
(20 February: Turns out to have been a scare. Broken thermometer.)

A few weeks ago a camera was put inside the same reactor but the pictures were disappointing. Click on the link below and you'll see lots of colourful speckles which are radiation, white streaks said to be water (condensation), and blistered orange paint. It had been hoped that the level of the water would be visible but it wasn't (so less water than anticipated). The inside of the reactors remains a mystery and radiation levels far too high for people to go in and work.
And here for good measure is Tepco's live cam of Fukushima Daiichi. The building in the foreground is Unit  1 with its smart cover. Then Unit 2 (building intact) then the mess of Units 3 and 4.

Current figures for the number of people evacuated is 156,000 (and rising). 96,000 are still  in Fukushima prefecture. Of these 32,000  are in temporary housing - flimsy prefabs - and the rest in rented accomodation. 60,000 people have gone to other parts of Japan. One of these is the young guy from our company who was on national TV at the end of last year. His wife and two small kids moved to Sapporo in Hokkaido and he came back from the New Year break and handed in his notice. He's leaving and he's going to try his luck in Hokkaido.

There is good news. To everyone's surprise, Fukushima University  is oversubscribed. Thyroid tests on 3,800 children living in the 0-20 and 20-30 km zones showed only 26 children (0.7%) with any problems and these were not related to the accident. Data on accumulated exposure (kids hand in their glass badges every month) is generally low. The Ministry of the Recovery opened yesterday (at long last) and a bill will be put to the Diet next week for special measures to stimulate the Fukushima economy (Fukushima fukko saisei tokubetsu hoan 福島復興再生特別法案). I hear there is interest in the grants and tax breaks which are promised to businesses that move here or expand existing facilities.

To the casual visitor, all might seem well in Koriyama. The streets are busy, people are going around doing all the things that people do. But at the back of everyone's mind there is unease (fuan 不安).  Worries about health, and the dawning realisation that this is really big, the clean up is going to take decades and will be immensely costly. There's wide public distrust of the government, everything is delayed (the clean up, the new Ministry, still no solution as to where to put the waste) and there is general anxiety about the future of Fukushima.

I have to say people here are amazingly strong. They put up with it all, put a brave face on things and keep each other going. Their watchword? Fukushima wa makenai 福島は負けない Fukushima won't give up.

Sunday 5 February 2012


Sunshine today after all the snow and I wish I could have gone skiing. But too much to do. There's been a lot of snow this past week. Fifty centimeters in Kitakata yesterday, waist high in total. Over three meters deep in  Niigata and Nagano and over 50 people dead in snow related accidents, mainly old people clearing the snow off the rooves of their houses.

Had some feedback on my comments in the last blog on the Fukushima Mothers. The leader of the movement is certainly an interesting person, a photo journalist who has covered Minamata pollution and Three Mile Island: Aileen Mioko Smith . Also introduced to  a blog which introduces wordwide media coverage of  Fukushima with translations of items in the Japanese press including a series that's been in Asahi Shimbun entitled 'Trap of Prometheus' that caused a lot of interest here. Worth a look. 

Radiation levels in Koriyama have dipped slightly to 0.6 mSv/hour but it's only because of the snow. The levels in the air reflect the contamination in the soil and the snow is blocking that.

In November last year the governor proclaimed that all rice in the prefecture was safe only to be embarassed by the later discovery of rice over the limit. The local authorities acted swiftly and even our local MP, one of Ozawa's babes who hasn't been conspicuously active on the part of her consitituency, was seen on televison accompanying the mayor of Nihonmatsu on a visit to Minister Edano. A new 'emergency' survey of last year's harvest was commissioned and the results have just come out. The 'safety standard' which was 500 bq/kg is to be lowered to 100 bq/kg from April. So tests have been made on 23,000 farms all of which tested positive in previous surveys. I'm glad to say that Sakuragaoka, where I used to live, and Hirata-mura where I get my rice from do not feature in the survey. All bags of rice in the Onami area of Fukushima City have been tested and one bag per farm for the rest. 38 farms had rice over 500 bq/kg (highest was 1,540 bq/kg) and the ban on these farms will continue. Over 500 farmers, mainly in the area north of Fukushima City, have rice falling in the 100-500 bq/kg range and the plan is that their rice will be compulsorily purchased with the purchaser claiming compensation from Tepco. Farmers are arguing that they want all the rice in an affected area purchased as if one farm has high levels those in the same area won't be able to sell their rice (fuhyo higai 風評被害). Why all the rice in the prefecture wasn't purchased in the first place, then released as it was tested, I don't know. Financial constraints, I suppose.

The city has started lending out geiger counters for individuals to measure radiation levels around their houses. Residents' associations (chonaikai 町内会)and PTAs can get grants up to 500,000 yen for clean up work, and Koriyama City's homepage advises individuals to claim compensation from Tepco. The local freebie has a full page ad on the front page for gutter and ditch cleaning work: from 200,000 yen. There's money to be made here ...

The cold seems to be worldwide. Take care.