Saturday 30 June 2012

My Day

Walking to work this morning amazed to see a London bus in Koriyama. A Routemaster, emblazoned with an advert for whisky. Come to think of it, this town’s gone London mad. Several of the hotels have a ‘London fair’ – fish and chips, sausages, roast beef!

It’s Saturday and a working day. Some weekends are free but the two companies I'm involved with only have 105 days off a year.

In the car, listen to a Tokyo University professor on the local radio, an expert on whole body counters. A year ago the experts wouldn’t give an opinion regarding our health as there was no data. But the whole body counters in Minami Soma Hospital now have results for 16,000 people and the machine in Hirata-mura has tested 20,000 people. What can he say from the results? First, that levels are going down. This time last year 60 out of 100 people tested positive, now the figure is down to 0.8 in a 100. 

Asked why people in the same family eating the same food showed different results, he said that young children excrete caesium fastest. So a nine year old may have a higher reading than his younger sibling. Moreover, women seem to excrete it faster than men, probably because it collects in the muscle. So it’s common, apparently, for the wiry old grandad to register highest.

To those mothers panicking when they heard their child had 200 bq in the body, he pointed out that 200 bq is very low and on the margin of detectablilty for the machines. If a 60 kg person was exposed to 1mSv/year they would show 20-30,000 bq and the average in Japan in the 1960s, when everyone was exposed to fallout from American and Soviet nuclear tests was 500-600 bq.

Every day I drive about 20 minutes out of town to the Tohoku Kogyo box factory. Have an honorary position, not a lot to do, but I make sure I show up every day. Today took a walk round the factory. Weather warmed up at last so boxes for veg, particularly cucumbers, in production.

Then on to one of our copy shops. It specialises in plans for the construction industry so business has been slack since the disaster. But very busy today: surge in demand for private housing, particularly in Iwaki and Fukushima. I’m there to do the books and not much help.

Then back into town and my real office. But before that, I pop into the Big Eye building just opposite. There’s a seminar on radiation organized by the Japanese Society of Radiation Safety Management. About 80 people there, lots of spare seats. It’s quite technical. Conclusion seems to be that there’s now lots of monitoring equipment in place (for air, food and for people) so no need to worry. Seminars like this being held everywhere. But most people there seemed to be headed for the  ‘Tanabata’ event in the planetarium on the 23rd Floor. Beautiful day. Rainy season but no rain and quite dry. Definitely a much better way to spend a Saturday afternoon.

Nationally, the Friday night anti-nuclear demo outside the PM's residence was bigger than ever. First popular movement for 50 years, they say. Electric companies' shareholders' meetings held last week. TEPCO meeting attended by Vice-Governor of Tokyo and Kanden meeting by Osaka Mayor Hashimoto. Both proposed motions for moving away from nuclear and for deeper cuts but all rejected. However, TEPCO has said it is withdrawing from a consortium to build nuclear plants in Vietnam. 

Shall resist the temptation to try Koriyama's fish and chips. I'm going to England myself next week and can have the real McCoy.
Good night

Monday 25 June 2012

Shoots of Recovery?

Not all the news is bad. Fishing's getting going again, although in a small way. Two kinds of octopus and one kind of shellfish caught 50 km off the Soma coast tested clear. The local supermarket chain York Benimaru tested them all over again and put them on sale in two of their supermarkets in Soma. All sold out today by early afternoon. The next catch to go on sale in Tokyo. Not all fish is clear but it's a start. People are beginning to see they might get their livelihoods back after all.

Plans to re-zone Iitate on 1 July going ahead. This is that rural area northwest of the reactor (230 sq km, original population 6,000) where everyone was evacuated in a hurry on 11 April last year. People will be able to return to areas up to 20 mSv/yr (if they're willing to that is) and details of the 'restricted residence zone' (20-50 mSv/yr, no staying overnight) into which most of the village falls, have just been announced. In actual fact, some businesses have  kept going all this time but now they can only stay if levels are 'not much over' 3.8 μSv/hr. Even so workers have to stay indoors and commute by car. Only those businesses essential for the recovery will be allowed: construction, decontamination, banks, petrol stations. No hospitals, schools, restaurants or shops. Workers in areas over 2.5 μSv/hr will be monitored.

Iwaki is doing really well. The grants offered by the government and the prefecture seem to be stimulating new business and there is a shortage (and some competition) for land on industrial estates.

Yesterday the results of the local paper's essay competition. The three prizewinners are to be 'ambassadors for the recovery' and get to go to London to take part in events to do with the Olympics and relay a 'message from Fukushima'. The winner in the Junior High section, a 14 year old girl, writes about how her grandad just carries on and tends his peach fields regardless. The winner in the high school section, a 17 year old girl, had a narrow escape from the tsunami and writes a letter to herself 'when she's grown up', reminding herself to pass on her experiences to the next generation for the sake of all those who didn't get to live. The winner in the adult section is one Koshi Fujita, a young farmer from Koriyama who's been active locally putting information about his produce on the internet at an early stage. He writes passionately about how he's going to stay in Fukushima and make it a place to be proud to farm.

Yours truly has the job of translating the essays into English. Struck by all the winners' love of the place and determination to put it to rights. Though my immediate problem is how to translate フクシマ (Fukushima written in katakana, hints of  Hiroshima, victim of a nuclear accident) and 福島 (Fukushima in characters) which is what it should be.
Unseasonally cold here. Not good for our packing business if the summer fruit and vegetables are held back.
Goodnight to you all.

Saturday 23 June 2012

Home and Away

Weather settled after the typhoon but still rainy. It is after all the rainy season. But not hot and sticky like in Tokyo. Momentous day for me. Completion of the sale of my old house. It's a big house, where we raised our kids, surrounded by woods, pine and maple. I've been renting it out for 8 years but it's still a wrench to see it go. I'd been thinking of doing the house up and offering it for sale on the internet, perhaps to someone who wanted a retirement home in the country. But the disaster put paid to that idea. The person who was renting it found the buyer, someone who loves the place, and I'm just glad the sale went through. Cleaned the house last weekend and enjoyed the rainy season there. The bark of the pine trees shine red in the wet and the fresh new green leaves are gloriously rich.

Big things happening nationally. Bill to set up a new Nuclear Standards Agency to replace the discredited NISA (Hoanin) finally got passed. The agency will work under a Committee of five experts who would take charge in an emergency. The opposition got their way and the chair of that committee would have ultimate responsibility so there won't be a repeat of the spectacle we saw last March when PM Kan, infuriated at Tepco went by helicopter to Fukushima Daiichi to find out for himself what was going on. The new agency is to be set up by September.

Tepco published its final report on the company's response to the accident. Blamed the PM for causing confusion. Said that the radioactive materials that travelled to the north west emanated from Reactor 2. Odd. There was no hydgrogen explosion in Reactor 2. Radiation still extremely high there (880mSv/hr) so no further details on the cause. Seems a bit premature to issue a 'final report' when they still don't know what's happening inside the reactors. The report got a bad press. No answers to the basic question, 'What lessons can be learned?' and too much putting the blame on other people.

According to Asahi News this evening, anti-nuclear demonstrations have been taking place every Friday night around the PM's office. Starting in March, and going out on Twitter, the demos have been growing in size every week. Tonight there were reportedly 45,000 people there. This and the 7 million signatories to an anti-nuclear petition organised by novelist Oe Kenzaburo would suggest a major popular movement. The government hint at reducing Japan's reliance on nuclear power but then go and re-start the Oi plant. As yet there's no clear indication of the direction Japan's energy policy will take in future so all hell's let loose. I heard someone say they thought restarting the Oi plant was part of a deal: give industry the electricity they need - in exchange for agreement to a raise in sales tax (VAT). Typical. No clear policy. 

Back at home I now need to persuade the buyer of the house to get the necessary qualifications to buy the two remaining fields. Not just anyone can buy agricultural land. To get the qualification, you have to farm 5 tanbu (about 5,000 sq metres) - and be under 65. Radiation is low round there so it should be OK to farm. Endo-san, neighbouring farmer, has had all his produce tested at the new testing centres and says all his produce is safe - except for the shiitake mushrooms he'd just got going after four years work. He was really upset about that.
Sorry this post jumps around a bit.

Wednesday 20 June 2012


Hi all,
Interesting programme on NHK last Sunday (10 June). I guess a follow up to the one about the sea in January (see The Sea), this time about the effects of the nuclear accident on rivers.

There are two main rivers flowing out of Fukushima. The Abukuma River which flows through Koriyama and Fukushima and into the Pacific in neighbouring Miyagi prefecture, south of Sendai. Then the Agano River, the confluence of many tributaries collecting rain and snow melt from Mount Bandai and south Aizu, which flows into the Japan Sea in Niigata prefecture.

Tests show that the water is clean. So drinking water is safe. The problem is in the muddy deposits on the river bed. It turns out there are two kinds of 'hotspots'. First, caesium has been dumped along with sand where tributaries meet the main river. The other main deposits are at the mouth of the rivers but in this case caesium has bonded with vermiculite in the clay and has been carried long distances before settling.

The mystery of high radiation in Ikenodai, a top residential area of Koriyama, is solved. Though radiation in the air in most of Koriyama is about 0.5 μSv/hr, there it sticks stubbornly at 1.9. It turns out that the two ponds there, Sakubuta Pond and Arai Pond are situated where some small rivers meet and became a dumping ground for caesium. Sakubuta Pond has been drained of water for some reason (I can't find out why) and according to an expert on the programme (Kimura-sensei who I've mentioned before) the pond is beaming out radiation and the only way to reduce levels is to scrape up all the mud and put it into sealed concrete containers in the middle of the pond.

Similarly the rivers in Aizu Bange are another 'hotspot'. The Aizu area itself has very low radiation, but Bange is situated where many small rivers come together.

Problems too for the people at the mouth of these two rivers far away from Fukushima. Fish poke about in the mud, eat little worms and things and get contaminated. So these poor people, who thought they were spared the agonies of Fukushima, find that they have to do the same as producers here: test, test, test.

On a brighter note, fishing has re-started in Soma on the Pacific Coast for three kinds of fish. Well, not fish exactly: one kind of octopus and two kinds of shellfish. But it's a start and again with lots of testing, maybe people can start to get back their living.
We're in the middle of a typhoon. Very unusual for June. Heavy rain and winds. Due to hit here early tomorrow morning. Poor people in Ishimaki and other disaster areas evacuated yet again.

Monday 11 June 2012

One Year 3 Months On

Hi everybody,
It's one year and three months since the accident. Life here is back to normal but lots of big issues remain unresolved.

On Friday evening the Prime Minister addressed the nation and explained why he'd decided to restart the Oi plant on the Japan Sea coast in Fukui: Osaka faces a 15% electricity shortage this summer so vulnerable people may die and businesses already suffering from the appreciation of the yen may move abroad; and for reasons of national security more imports of oil and LNG will increase our dependence on the volatile Middle East. Sound reasoning I'm sure but that guy really does lack charisma. The way he was talking you'd think Fukushima had never happened. 

Talks continue on the reorganisation of the areas around Fukushima Daiichi. The government wants to abolish the local authority boundaries and reorganize according to contamination levels. So there would be areas over 50 mSv/yr which would be 'difficult to return to' (kinan konnan kuiki 帰還困難区域), areas of 20 to 50 mSv/yr where residence would be restricted  (kyoju seigen kuiki 居住制限区域), and areas below 20 mSv/yr which in time would have restrictions removed (hinan shiji kaijo junbi kuiki 避難指示解除準備区域). Compensation for land, property and household goods would be attributed accordingly. Iidate-mura, north-west of the reactor is to be divided into 3 such areas and plans seem to be moving towards a settlement next month but the other authorities, nearer the plant, are digging their heels in. You could be cynical and say they're only trying to protect their jobs on the council but they maintain that all residents in the same district should get equal compensation.

Currently 85,900 people are evacuated. New government estimates forecast that about a third, 27,500 people, will not be able to return in five years time and they will be fully compensated. Even in 20 years time, 32% of residents of Okuma-machi (where Fukushima Daiichi is) and 18% of those in neighbouring Futaba-machi will not be able to go back.

The evacuees have been receiving 100,000 yen per head per month in compensation for 'stress' but this runs out in August. So far TEPCO has promised to continue payments for those under 15.

Parliamentary debate on the the long-awaited bill to set up a new safety watchdog for the nuclear industry started last week. A new Standards Agency (Kiseicho 規制庁) to replace the much maligned Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (Hoanin 保安院) was supposed to be up and running in April. The government plan is to have the new body under the Ministry of the Environment, with the PM having the final say. The opposition are calling for a more independent commission, something like the Monopolies Commission and want politicians out of it. Already it seems the original bill is being watered down.

Here it's one of the best seasons of the year. The rice fields are flooded, the water reflecting the colours of the sky, and the rice seedlings pricked out in thin lines. The trees and undergrowth in the hills are lush and green. But orders in the box factory, though slightly above last year, are well below pre-disaster levels. Those businesses not part of the recovery boom, are struggling.

Sunday 10 June 2012

Good stress, bad stress

Hi folks
It's a beautiful time of year. The azaleas and roses are in full bloom. Passing the time of day with some other ladies in the jacuzzi at the gym I go to, we were saying how lovely the flowers were, how we didn't notice them last year, or if we did, we didn't feel anything. Yes, life is back to normal and we can smell the roses.

And yet ... I drove up to our office in Sendai the other day and recalled my visit last autumn when I waxed lyrical in the blog about the last of the autumn colours and the oncoming winter. Then it was exhilarating, all my senses on high alert. This time it was a boring journey on the motorway, something to be endured. Then, I could write the blog until 1 o'clock in the morning, have five hours sleep, and work and never feel tired.  Now I'm tired and ready for bed by 11. Then, we were living on adrenaline and the memories are stark. Now life is back to normal and one day merges into another. I guess the trick is to have a modicum of stress to get the most out of every day - but take time to smell the roses too. Easy to say, hard to do.

Some stress though we can do without. Fukushima University this week published the results of a survey on stress levels among parents and children under 12. Over 2,000 parents in the city of Fukushima were surveyed in January and the results compared with a similar survey carried out last June in Koriyama and Fukushima. 50% still didn't hang the washing outside (down from 60% last year) and 54% didn't let their children play outside (down from 67% last year). 71% of parents are 'very careful about food', and 23% are 'slightly careful about food'. So there's hardly a parent in Fukushima who's not careful about what they feed their children.  (Fukushima University, Faculty of Symbiotic Systems Science research team.)

On the face of it life is back to normal. Koriyama is a bustling city. But you're careful. And you do get used to it. But it's still stressful, I think.
There is good news. The pools and poolsides at the schools have been cleaned and the kids will be able to swim outside this summer.
Bye for now
P.S. Picture in the local paper of mating frogs in Kawauchi (see post Kawauchi-mura).
Kaeru Kawauchi

Sunday 3 June 2012

Oi Plant to Re-open

It looks as if the Oi nuclear plant is to be re-opened after an abrupt U-turn on the part of the authorities in the Kansai area. Mayor of Osaka, Hashimoto, who was saying only last week that it isn't safe has changed his tune and the governor of Fukui prefecture Kada Yukiko (who incidentally always wears green, perhaps to show her green credentials) has bowed to the 'inevitable'. I don't know who said what to whom but the government was going to push it through anyway. There'd been a lot of pressure from small businesses and Kanden (Kansai Electric) had been warning of a 15% shortage in Osaka this summer and preparing for 'planned' power cuts. 

Hashimoto covered himself by getting the government to say the plant is to be opened for a limited period only (genteiteki 限定的). But on one TV programme this morning someone suggested he's setting himself up to fight in a general election in the autumn on a platform of whether to keep the Oi plant open or not. All this political posturing is pathetic. There's still no roadmap for the country's energy policy. Germany announced it would get rid of nuclear by 2020. Kan, the former PM, said Japan would get rid of nuclear but Noda has been careful not to say anything too clear cut. Up to now the discussion centred on safety but this seems to have been thrown out the window and the plant is to be opened for the simple, but pressing, reason that there isn't enough electricity.

The people have lost faith in the government and the nuclear industry. Why can't we have a simple explanation that the Oi plant will be able to cope with a tsunami like at Fukushima and needs to be re-opened just this summer? There's been a real shift in popular opinion since Fukushima. People are re-thinking their lifestyles. All the nuclear plants in the country have been stopped for a year. It could have been a golden opportunity to re-think this country's future. Not just in energy, but in everything. This country's been badly battered since the bubble burst in the early 1990s. But people are feeling let down by the government. There's a feeling that nothing's changed. 

This hasn't been helped by revelations that nuclear industry insiders on the Japan Atomic Energy Commission studying the future role of nuclear in a new energy policy had been holding numerous secret  meetings. The 'atomic village' mentality seems to be alive and well. 

It's going to take 6 weeks to get two reactors at Oi going. Do you know how a nuclear reactor works? At the moment control rods are lowered completely into bundles of uranium submerged in water in the reactor. These control rods will be slowly raised causing nuclear fission in the fuel. The heat generated makes the water in the pressure vessel boil, then water in a connected chamber boils creating steam which turns the turbines. A boiler is used to heat water for the preliminary testing of pipes etc and there's only one of these at Oi so Reactor 3 will be started first taking three weeks, then Reactor 4, total six weeks. (I'm no expert, the Nikkei did an article on this yesterday.) Reactor 3 has been closed down since March 2011 and Reactor 4 since July last year. Let's hope everything goes according to plan.

I wish I was in England. Looks like it's going to be a fun long weekend for the Queen's Jubilee.
Thinking of you all. Have fun!