Thursday 29 March 2012

Stress Tests

Prime Minister Noda joined Obama and the others at the 2012 Seoul Nuclear Security Summit but he didn't stay long. Arrived in time for dinner and left after lunch. Two speeches. With Japan the only country to have had atomic bombs dropped on it and having experienced the nuclear accident here in Fukushima, you'd think he'd take more of a  lead in backing Obama's bid to make nuclear safer. But he's too busy trying to get his party to agree on the sales tax (VAT) hike and negotiating when to call a general election.

And maybe he's not got that much good to report. All Tepco's nuclear reactors are now closed. In fact only one of Japan's 54 reactors is in operation and that's in Hokkaido. 

Kansai Electric (Osaka) is trying to reopen a couple of reactors at the Oi plant in Fukui.  They've passed the first round of 'Stress tests' and can withstand a tsunami of 11 metres (original plan was for 9 metres) but the IAEA and local governors all say that tests should reflect the lessons learnt from Fukushima. A second round of Stress Tests is supposed to do just that but these standards will be set by a new 'Nuclear Regulation Agency' (原子力規制庁). Trouble is it doesn't even open until 1st April. You have to ask why it's taken so long. The PM says he's going to make a 'political decision' as to whether the Oi plant should be opened.  Can't see why it should be a political decision. Should be based on hard facts discussed out in the open.

Things are not good at Fukushima either. A camera inserted into the containment vessel of Unit 2 found only 60 cm of water where they had been hoping for 4 meters. As 9 tons of water a day are being pumped in, that means it's leaking. Next they inserted a dosimeter and it measured  30 to 70 sieverts. We're talking sieverts here. Not mili or micro but full blown sieverts. Seven seiverts would kill you in a month. Twenty within a few days. The plan is to use robots to do the clearance but this may not work as such high levels might interfere with the controls.

There's also been a leak into the sea of 80 litres of water contaminated with radioactive strontium. That's the stuff that accumulates in your bones like calcium. (And fish bones too I guess.) Talking of fish, fishers in Miyagi north of Fukushima have been told they can't fish for suzuki, a luscious big fish,  as levels of caesium are higher than the new stricter regulations to be brought in on April 1st.

And then this. It's part of a television program (with English subtitles) shown in Tokyo drawing attention to the dangers in Unit 4 which houses the spent fuel rods. Pretty scary. I picked it up off Fukushima Info which is a Facebook site for us foreigners here. Interesting comment by one member: "You don't see this kind of stuff on the TV up here" ....
TV Asahi 8 March 2012

I'm sorry. This really has turned into a catalogue of disasters. I'm OK, Mum, honest! It's just that every day seems to bring more and more news underlining the scale, severity - and expense of this nuclear accident.
Love to you all

Monday 26 March 2012

This and that

It's been a long, cold winter. It was snowing last week, though I think we've seen the last of it, and today there was a bitter wind. My mother says that in her garden in Yorkshire, the crocus are finished and the garden is alive with daffodils, narcissi and hellebores. In Tokyo the 'ume' (plum) with its lovely fragrance is in full bloom, to be followed by the cherry (late this year, forecast to start 7 April) followed by peach blossom. But here the landscape is still wintry. There's an old castle town about ten miles away called Miharu 三春 which translates as 'Triple Spring' . People say it's because the plum, the cherry and the peach blossom come out all  at once, usually at the end of April. Yes, it's a long wait for spring. But then it will come very suddenly.

Extraordinary news last week that the SPEEDI map, which predicts the distribution of radioactive materials after a nuclear accident and which the Cabinet only found out about a couple of weeks after the disaster, was sent by e-mail to Fukushima prefecture's disaster HQ in the days after the disaster - but someone deleted all the e-mails! Full story here:

On Friday the results of the annual Ministry of Land and Transport survey of land prices (as of 1st January) came out. Land prices nationally fell on average 2.3%.  Fukushima was the worst prefecture at 6.2%  and the worst place in Fukushima was our very own Koriyama where land prices fell a record 8.1% over the year before. For someone who's trying to sell her house (too big) and running a real estate company this is not good news. Someone was telling me prices should bottom out this year. Those who've evacuated to Koriyama aren't buying yet. They're waiting for their compensation. For those in the 'Dificult to Return zone' (see last post) Tepco has promised 6 million yen (46,000 GBP) per person (5 years worth compensation upfront for evacuation expenses and mental stress) and says it will purchase  land and buildings at pre-disaster prices. So people are in limbo, waiting for their compensation. Hopefully then we'll get a housing boom and a rise in prices.

In Koriyama the library and the concert hall reopened last week at long last.

Meanwhile North Korea's threatening to lop a missile at its neighbours next month. The last one came over this way but this time it's going south, over Okinawa and Guam towards the Phillipines. Obama's doing some very welcome posturing in the Republic of Korea.
Never a dull moment here.

Sunday 25 March 2012

New Zones

There's a major reorganisation taking place regarding contamination and the zones which will determine whether residents can go back home. This is a picture I took of a map in the local paper. The picture's not brilliant but I thought it might be easier to explain than a link.
Names of towns (white on black lozenges): top left IITATE, top right MINAMI SOMA,
centre NAMIE
First, look at the two half-circles, the 20 km exclusion zone and the 20-30 km zone put in place last year after the disaster.
Now, look at where the radioactive particles actually landed. The colours are the results of government surveys.
The area in red  has annual cumulative external radiation exposure of over 50 mSv/year (unihabitable) and is to be re-named the 'Difficult to Return Zone' (帰還困難区域 kikan konnan kuiki )
The area in yellow, 20 to 50 mSv/year, will be known as the 'Restricted Residence Zone' (居住制限区域 kyoju seigen kuiki )
The area in blue, under 20 mSv/year, will be the 'Preparatory Zone for Lifting the Evacuation Order' ( 避難指示解除準備区域 hinan shiji kaijo junbi kuiki )
The government has said it plans to clean up the yellow and blue areas in two years (by March 2014) starting with the least contaminated areas. There are no plans yet for cleaning up the red zone.

Maps like this began to appear last summer but everyone's been hanging on waiting for details of compensation and for plans from the various councils affected. Mr Sakurai (famous for his worldwide appeal on Youtube last March) is appealing for people to come back to Minami Soma and is reopening schools and assuring people that returning won't affect their compensation (though some people seem to be hedging their bets by staying away).

Iitate, whose mayor Mr Kanno had successfully re-branded the area as 'slow life' and who pledged when they left they would be back in two years,  is planning to reorganise and start getting people back.

But look at Namie. Its mayor, Mr Baba, has worked so hard to keep the people together but it's all red. The harsh reality is that they have to relocate. But Baba is not giving in and is still pressing for reconstruction of his area.

Kawauchi council (the area next to the legend, half white, half blue) which had evacuated to Koriyama has gone back and is working on repairing infrastructure and getting on with the clean up. The mayor there says people have to make up their own minds as to whether to return. He wants to respect people's decisions and let them know they belong to the village even if they don't come back rightaway. He's trying to stop any kind of stigma developing. These people are working so hard to keep their communities together.

The TV shows lots of public meetings and many people seem confused. Is it safe for children? How long will the clean up take? Will it go according to plan? Would going back affect compensation? So many things to think about. It must be really hard.
Well, that's all for now.
Good night,

Wednesday 21 March 2012

Spring Equinox

Yesterday, 20 March, was a holiday. It was the Spring Equinox, a Buddhist holiday, when people go to the family graves. Last year no one could go as there was no petrol so it was good to see everything back to normal.

In this area there were no flowers at this time of year so people used to make them. They're made out of shaven wood and dyed bright yellow, green, pink and purple. People write their names on them and leave them at graves they've visited -  a very pretty calling card.
Bye for now,
Still cold here

The Kaneko family grave

A 'higanbana' calling card

春分の日   shunbun no hi    The Spring Equinox
彼岸 higan    Equinox (either spring or autumn)
彼岸花 higanbana   Spider Lily (lit. Equinox flower)
お墓   o-haka   grave
お墓参り  o-haka-mairi   going to visit the grave(s)

Thursday 15 March 2012

One Year On

I usually do a round up of the general situation every month but it didn't seem appropriate at the anniversary so I've put it separately  here.

All quiet at the plant. The scare last month about the temperature rising in Unit 2 turned out to be a faulty thermometer. Reactors 1 to 3 and spent fuel pools in Reactors 1 to 4 continue to be cooled by the circulating system developed jointly by Japan, America and France. Temperatures in the reactors at end February were 24'C for Unit 1, 44'C for Unit 2 and 53'C for Unit 3. So cold shutdown maintained. Unit 1 is covered over, the building of Unit 2 is still slightly open to the outside, work is going on to remove the debris of buildings from Units 3 and 4 which were destroyed in the explosions. An underground wall is being built to prevent seepage of water into the sea. 3,000 people beavering away trying to clear up the mess. Acres and acres of tanks holding water that's been used in cooling. Nowhere to put it and talk of dumping cleaned water in the sea but with the ban on fishing still in place, the fishing industry won't hear of it.

80% of people surveyed say the recovery is too slow. For example, although most debris from the tsunami has been cleared from the coast, only 5% has been taken away. Tokyo, Aomori and Yamagata have taken in some but even though debris from Iwate and Miyagi is nowhere near Fukushima and is clear of radiation, residents won't have it. The PM was on TV on the anniversary and said central government would pay for extra testing etc. It seems to have worked and more local authorities and some private companies are looking into accepting the waste.

Progress in rebuilding, for example moving to higher ground, has been slow. Local authorities made plans but didn't get the money until December and then didn't have the resources to make the scores of applications to five or more Ministries. The Ministry of the Recovery is supposed to be a 'one-stop' shop to simplify things but it only opened last month so it's still early days. People are saying that growth in demand for construction, materials etc will start from the summer.

Big companies are pushing ahead. Rengo our parent company whose Sendai factory was destroyed in the tsunami purchased land on higher ground within weeks and the new factory is to open today, 15 March, bringing back all the workers who'd been given temporary employment in other factories in the group. Brilliant. But for smaller businesses which don't have the funds obviously things are much more difficult.

One of our customers, Yuzuki, a firm making kamaboko fish sausage, has been the first to get compensation paid (150 million yen, over a million GBP) for loss of sales due to the nuclear scare. Our box business still has lawyers working on the case. Out of thousands of applications only a handful have been awarded.

The main problem for all the disaster areas but Fukushima in particular is to stop the drain of people leaving. For jobs there need to be grants and tax breaks to entice industry here and the Chamber of Commerce has sent us a survey asking what kind of 'tokku' (特区), special deregulated areas, ie free from Japan's notorious red tape, we would like to see.

Seya Toshio, an old friend, ex-Toho Bank and Chairman of the Fukushima Prefecture Chamber of Commerce, has spoken out. He says he's sick of talk of grants and airy fairy ideas. He's angry with central government for refusing to fund free medical care for under 18s (the prefecture's going to go ahead with it anyway). He wants Fukushima made into a tax haven and he's floating the idea of getting Fukushima Daini (No 2) going, selling the electricity not to Tokyo but to Fukushima businesses at rock bottom prices to give them a competitive edge. I doubt it will happen as people here are very anti-nuclear but at least it's someone  thinking outside the loop and looking for practical solutions to this new reality we are facing.
Well, that's all for now
Good night

Sunday 11 March 2012

Thoughts on the Anniversary

People are out today doing what you do on a Sunday, going shopping, watching the events in town. But the date and time is etched in the common psyche. Latest figures for the disaster are 15,854 dead, 3,155 missing. 344,000 people displaced. Recent, shocking, revelations here in Fukushima: at least 5 people left behind in the evacuation starved to death in their homes; and  rescue workers intending to go back to the coast at daybreak were switched to evacuation duties and the search for survivors abandoned.

Excellent BBC documentary 'Children of the Tsunami' now on YouTube BBC Children of the Tsunami (14 March: Sorry, it's been taken off though snippets available) which reminded me of our trip to Ishnomaki in April last year. We took  cardboard sheet to use as partitions and I had the bright idea of taking pens and crayons for the children to decorate them. I didn't mention it at the time as it was all too raw but the parents of Okawa primary school, shown in that documentary, were in that evacuation centre. At that time the parents were out everyday searching the rubble of the school and they were talking about the need to get more diggers in (there was only one). I remember hearing one person ask another if she'd found her child. On hearing that she had, she said, 'Yokatta ne' (That's good). It seemed such an odd thing to say. How can you be happy to find a body? It was outside one's normal comprehension. Another problem with that evacuation centre was that it sheltered families from Okawa school and another school where all the children were saved. If you watch the BBC documentary you'll understand why feelings were running high. So the loss is awful, there's great sadness and a year on it's appropriate to remember.

At 2:46 pm today the Emperor led the nation in a minute's silence and service of remembrance. He's only been out of hospital a week after heart bypass surgery. Bless him.

In Fukushima 160,000 people have evacuated, of these 62,000 have gone outside the prefecture. More and more people are leaving, especially those under 40. The most important thing is to stop this exodus. This means reassurances that Fukushima is a safe place to live (decontamination, free healthcare for the under 18s), and jobs.

I think everyone who experienced the disaster has changed. Maybe everyone in Japan has changed. I've certainly learnt to appreciate all those normal things which you take for granted but which are actually very precious - going for a walk, playing outside, gardening, families being together, good safe food. A phrase from one of the songs someone was singing at the festival yesterday sticks in my mind, ささやかな幸せ, sasayakana shiawase, a modest amount of happiness. I've never been a believer in the 'right' to happiness. Life throws up too many obstacles. But appreciating the ordinary things can make you happy enough.

Let me leave you with this picture which says it all.  (Koriyama station area yesterday.)

Saturday 10 March 2012

10 March 2012

Hi folks,
Not a good day for a Matsuri. Woke up to snow but by the time I got to the station around lunchtime the snow had melted and events were in full swing.

As promised there were stalls of street food doing good trade, three stages hosting events, and Fukushima FM Radio blasting out.

Wandered into the Big-I building (it's got a planetarium on the top floor the highest in the world - honestly, it's in the Guiness Book of Records!) and found lots of people in the 'Citizens Plaza' on the 7th floor. Events organised by various anti-nuclear organisations. A film show, children's health advice room (packed), and a symposium. I sat in on the discussions. The atmosphere very different from yesterday. An urgency, many in the audience taking notes.

Japan doesn't have a good record when it comes to compensating victims of disasters. There are still lawsuits going on regarding Hiroshima, Nagasaki and the mercury pollution case in Minamata in 1956. The symposium was calling for legislation to 'protect the lives and dignity' of victims of the Fukushima nuclear accident, particularly the right to compensation, proper healthcare and the right for access to information and consultation.

I didn't like the fact that there were outsiders there. Not happy with the idea of every anti-movement jumping on the Fukushima bandwagon to promote their own interests. But it happened with Hiroshima and I guess we're up there. One comment did get me thinking though. The PM's announcement in December that the accident was over which angered so many people here. Was it to cover the government? To put an end to any claims for compensation for health related issues in the long term? I don't know.
(Sunday 11 March: Big demonstrations in Tokyo and here in Koriyama.)

Left the meeting and walked back to the square. The stalls were gone, replaced by paper lanterns, glowing in the dark. Beautiful.

Children in the station square
'Fura Gaaru' (Hula Girls) from the Hawaiian Centre in Iwaki.
Made famous in the eponymous film showing the metamorphosis from coal mine to Hawaiian spa resort.
Symposium to 'protect the lives and dignity' of Fukushima victims

Lanterns made of Japanese paper decorated by children

The sign at the back reads 'Harubotaru', spring fireflies. Apparently an old custom where children write wishes on lanterns.

Expert Advice

Went to an evening of  lectures  last night organised by one of the big hospitals here. Lecture titles:  'How Chronic Low Dose Radiation affects Health', 'Fukushima in 2030' and 'Neurosurgery in the 21st century'. Thought there'd be 20 people there but there were 2,000! Just shows how people want answers to the big question -  the long term effects of radiation on our health.

First up was Professor Nakamura Hironobu of Osaka University. He ran through the basics of radiation. That there is no proven increase in the risk of cancer under 100 mSv and then that is for a single dose. The risk for the same dose over a long period is not known (estimates are from half to one-tenth) but the body has the capacity to repair itself.  He gave lots of examples of studies all showing that low doses do not increase the risk of cancer.

New to me was the mechanism of radiation on the body. The lecturer said, and I have no knowlege of chemistry so forgive my bad explanation, that since most of the body is made of water, when radiation hits H2O one hydrogen molecule is split off leaving a hydroxyl radical (H and O) which is  harmless. The odds on radiation hitting the DNA are slight but these free radicals can hit and cause slight damage to DNA though it's repaired within 2 days.

Another interesting piece of information was that internal exposure (内部被 naibu hibaku )is less dangerous than external. Caesium 137 that's not excreted takes 50 years to disappear but all that time the body is repairing itself. If you had 1,000 bq in your food for the year (and according to Asahi Shimbun of 19 January the average in Fukushima is 4bq/day), it would be equivalent to 0.013 mSv for an adult and 0.021 mSv for a child which would waste away over 50 years so the effect on health would be negligible. If this is true it needs to be more widely known as people here think internal exposure is more dangerous.

His conclusion was that other factors such as smoking (cause of 30% of cancers), food (another 35%) and genetic factors (13%) are far more likely to cause cancer. Radiation is a small slice in the pie chart along with food additives, stress, asbestos etc. In Japan today 1 in 2 men die of cancer and 2 out of 3 women so we'll probably never know if the nuclear accident here caused  extra deaths.

Next speaker was Dr Yamaguchi Kazuyuki, Member of the Upper House who sits on the Committee for the Recovery. An energetic man in his 50's, he showed us two videos. The first showed the many people around the world who helped a year ago: the US Army in Operation Tomodachi, international  rescue workers, and those who raised funds. The message of the video was 'Arigato', thank you, but he wanted us to know that we owe it to people around the world to rebuild the Tohoku Region.

Next he showed us a promotion video of Jeju. I'd never heard of Jeju but it's an island in the Japan Sea which the Korean government is promoting as a brand new high tech city. Yamaguchi says we need to have something similar here. His suggestions: high tech medical and welfare (Medical Valley), lithium batteries and solar, Agribusiness, smart towns for the elderly, anime industry, medical tourism.

He says that on a composite ranking (employment, health, education etc), Fukushima ranks 27th out of Japan's 47 prefectures. Let's be No. 1 he says. Stop smoking, exercise, eat well! Let's make Fukushima have the least cancer in Japan! He's got everyone enthused.  Applause.

Final speaker was charismatic Professor Fukushima Takanori from Duke University, North Carolina. I hadn't realised but he's a very famous surgeon, nicknamed the 'Hand of God' who's performed tens of thousands of operations. Again he played down the dangers of radiation. Says we're OK. If you're in hospital for 3 months with a stroke you'll probably get 40 mSv from all the scans you get, he said. And modern machines are not dangerous. You'll get no radiation from an MRI scan on a new machine. Jokingly he said, ask the hospital how much the machine cost. The more expensive it is the safer it is! Then he went on to show us slides of operations he'd done. Apart from tumours, he's done operations on the brain to cure infertility  (in women), and a disease which makes the skin a dark colour. Amazing.

He ended up with a plug for the hospital hosting the event, Minami Tohoku Byoin in Koriyama and its director Watanabe Kazuo. He says it's the only hospital in the world which has all four state of the art machines for neurosurgery (gamma knife and three others).

So just before eight, 2,000 people spilled out onto Sakura-dori. Hungry, we'd been there since before five, but energised by people with a vision for the future.
We need to hear more from people like this, people with the vision (and the money) to shape the future.

Sunday 4 March 2012


Hi folks,
The weather here today was perfect. Had a great day. Took a free bus from Koriyama station to Alts ski resort on the west side of Mount Bandai. Wonderful views over Lake Inawashiro. More boarders than skiiers, I should say. Not exactly powder but plenty of snow.

The central area at Alts was busy enough but in spite of being a sunny Sunday in high season, there were no queues and the slopes were pretty empty.  Generally tourism in Fukushima for the year is only 60% of what it was the previous year and skiing is no exception. Some resorts have fared better than others. Dinky little Numajiri where I taught my kids to ski hasn't done too badly as it caters for the locals. But Adatara whose bread and butter is school trips from Tokyo and Kyushu has had many cancellations (number of visitors only 36% the previous season) not helped by hotels in nearby Dake Onsen being damaged by the earthquake or closing down altogether. People from Fukushima and nearby prefectures such as Ibaragi and Tochigi know that radiation levels are low in the Aizu area and haven't stayed away but Alts is an upmarket resort catering mainly for Tokyo tours and numbers are only 64% compared with  the previous season. Pity. It has great facilities, especially for families. Indoor creche (¥1,500/hour), restaurant and car park exclusive to families and children's slopes complete with escalator! Back on the main slopes some of those tiny kids on snowboards are amazing.

It was exhilarating to ski on such a perfect day in such beautiful surroundings and on empty slopes. But it's not good for the area. Please come and visit Fukushima. You don't know what you're missing.
Happy but tired, I'll wish you goodnight,

Mount Bandai and Alts ski resort

'Fukushima Re-Born '

Lake Inawashiro looking west towards Aizu

Lake Inawashiro looking east towards Koriyama

Saturday 3 March 2012

Anniversary Coming up

Anniversary coverage of the disaster has started on TV. It's near the bone and and sometimes hard to watch. Brings it all back. A lot has happened in a year and yet it seems like yesterday. I was talking to someone at work yesterday and he was saying the same thing: the tsunami, no water, electricity or petrol - it only seems like last week. Vivid memories stay in the mind playing tricks on your sense of time.

I was wondering how I should spend the anniversary. But the burghers of Koriyama have it sorted. We're going to have a matsuri, 'Let the World Know Koriyama is Well Festival!'. It's to  be held in the station square and environs and there's going to be music, dancing, comedians, a tug of war and stalls of B-grade gourmet food. B-grade gourmet? It's the best (there are serious competitions for this) of B-grade cuisine,  i.e. cheap, everyday food such as yakisoba, raamen, yakiniku and much more. The local radio station will be covering the festivities, parts being broadcast nationally. Nishida Toshiyuki will be appearing at one of the shows at the Belle View wedding hall on Route 4.


The people of Koriyama are frontier folk. The area was arid scrubland until it was developed in the late nineteenth century by lower ranking samurai from all over the country who found themselves suddenly unemployed when the Shogun gave up power and the feudal system broke down. Unlike those living in the castle towns of Aizu, Nihonmatsu, Sukagawa and Miharu, the people of Koriyama are tough and unsophisticated. So why bother about radiation? Let's get on with life and show the world we know how to have a good time! That seems to be the message. And I for one will certainly be there. 

Girls Day today. Slushy underfoot after yesterday's heavy snowfall. Hope to go skiing tomorrow.