Sunday 26 August 2012


Hi again
Got a letter from Koriyama city letting us know some agricultural land our company owns could be eligible for decontamination. So yours truly attended a briefing one evening last week and very interesting it was too. About 40 people turned up and there were 8 officials: six from the city, two from the prefecture and two from JA, the agricultural cooperative that's going to do the work. Koriyama has a budget to clean 560 hectares (that's 1,383 acres) of farmland this fiscal year. 

We were given maps showing levels of airborne radiation and soil contamination. Then we were told how it would be done. First, radiation in the air and in the soil would be measured. Then, depending on the results, zeolite and potassium fertilisers would be scattered on the land and harrowed in twice to a depth of 20 cm. (There's another method which involves deep ploughing but the city don't envisage using that.) Last year tests were done on 7 hectares of land and using this method, airborne radiation (1 cm above the soil) was reduced by 30% from 0.9 to 0.6 μSv/hr and caesium in the soil was reduced by 40% from 2,600 to 1,400 bq/kg.

There was a list of areas listed in order of airborne radiation and our land is right at the bottom so I don't think we'll be chosen. Anyway, we were told that farmers who sold their produce would have first priority, then those who grow their own food, and we don't even use the land. And it depends on the take up. Someone stood up and asked why it was voluntary. Shouldn't the city act more aggressively in getting high level areas cleaned? The answer was interesting. It seems that there's no direct relation between the radiation in the soil and the air and what eventually ends up in the plant. For example, last year, farmers were allowed to plant on soil under 5,000 bq/kg but prohibited from planting in areas over that. The results were tested at harvest but there was no direct correlation between the soil and the amount of caesium measured in the food. It seems other factors are at work such as the topography, the  kind of soil and cultivation methods. One trend seems to be the fertility of the soil, particularly the amount of potassium. If the soil has lots of organic matter then the produce tends to be alright. If the soil is poor and lacking in potassium, the plants take up caesium instead. 

I personally own some farmland just outside the city but it seems there are no plans to decontaminate that area. First, levels are low there and it was pointed out that if the land was cultivated last year then it's already been turned over and reduced. Moreover, Caesium 134 has a half life of two years so it's already a lot less than it was. 

The overriding impression of the meeting was that this is unknown territory. The work will be done, but no one knows what's going to happen next year, there seems to be a lot of trial and error.

It is so hot. 33 'C every day. One day last week Fukushima city was 36.9'C, hottest place in the country. It's in a basin surrounded by mountains and does get very hot but if you took a child's temperature, that would be a mild fever! This is the last Sunday in August. The schools go back tomorrow.
Bye for now

Monday 20 August 2012

Nuclear Waste (2)

Just as I'd finished writing the last post, proposals for Fukushima's interim waste storage facility were announced. I added a note but here are the details.

Currently soil scraped off in the clean up is stored under plastic sheets in situ, or where local authorities have managed to set one up, in a temporary dump. The plan is to start transporting this waste to an 'interim storage facility' by 2015. The waste will be encased in concrete containers and stored for up to 30 years. Then it's to be transferred to a 'permanent repository'. No one has any idea what this might be but the government has promised it will not be in Fukushima.
(1 September 2012: The government today has proposed putting the permanent site at the southern tip of Kyushu. Residents and fishing bodies are up in arms.)

With between 15 and 28 million cubic metres of nuclear waste to be stored requiring an area of  3 to 5 square kilometres, this new proposal calls for twelve sites. Two are in Futaba just north of Fukushima Daiichi, in a hilly area adjacent to Route 6. Nine sites are in Okuma, the area south of Fukushima Daiichi: some along the coast, one on an industrial estate, more alongside Route 6. Then there is one large site in Naraha, south of Fukushima Daini, a rural residential area the eastern edge of which was destroyed by the tsunami. The Environment Ministry say that current radiation levels had nothing to do with their decision, rather the topography (for example, low land which could be easily filled in) and access. Indeed, the two sites in Futaba are to take waste from Soma and the north, the site in Naraha to take waste from Iwaki, and the nine sites in Okuma which has access on Route 288 to Koriyama and the expressway, are to take waste from Koriyama, Fukushima and the rest of the prefecture, a huge area.

The matter has been contentious and talks with local residents broke down in March. So now they're back at the table - which must be a good thing. Hard on those who used to live in those areas, especially after the recent lifting of evacuation bans will have raised their hopes about returning, but this is an issue that needs solving. Koriyama where I live, has been actively pursuing a policy of decontamination. First, the school playgrounds and routes to and from the schools were scraped and cleaned. Next the parks. Pasture for cows is currently being cleaned. Because the city knows that if levels don't come down, those who've evacuated, especially young families, won't come back, tourists won't come, agricultural produce won't sell. So the clean up is essential to Fukushima's future. But we urgently need a place to put the waste. 

The next step is consultation with the local authorities and local residents. Then there are surveys to be carried out: environmental, geological, etc. Getting the sites decided by next March is going to be a tall order but that's the aim. 

This is not the whole story. There are incinerators to be built too and the highly radioactive waste from Fukushima Daiichi will be dealt with separately, probably on site. The work that has to be done clearing up after this accident is mind-boggling. 

On a brighter note, Kawauchi which I visited in May shortly after the evacuation ban was lifted has welcomed an aluminium company from Tokyo which has taken advantage of special grants and set up a factory offering work for 30 people. 
That's all for now

Sunday 19 August 2012

Nuclear Waste

Back to work Friday and Saturday after the o-bon holidays but it's quiet in the office. Time to catch up on paperwork including some surveys to fill in. The government Energy and Resources Agency wants to know how much energy we used last year. Toshiaki and me in one small office? Not much. One of the best things I did for the environment was selling the cardboard box business to Rengo. In the old factory our ancient oil-fired boiler powered an antiquated corrugating machine which steamed the fluting pattern on the paper, glued it, dried it, creased it, cut it. Now we buy the corrugated sheets in. They're produced much more efficiently at Rengo's state of the art factory in Yabuki 30 miles away which has solar panels supplying all the factory's energy needs in daylight hours. Brilliant.

Did you see the news that America has frozen permissions for new nuclear plants pending progress on how to deal with nuclear waste? Up until now the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) was happy to have spent fuel stored at nuclear plants until a permanent nuclear waste respository was completed. But soon after taking office Obama put a stop to plans to build such a facility at Yukka Mountain in Nevada. So there's nowhere to dump the stuff. Before Fukushima, most people probably didn't even realise that spent fuel was stored at nuclear power plants. It's kind of reassuring that what we're going through here in Fukushima is making people think and having an effect on policy.

Coincidentally, Japan's been having second thoughts on its policy for nuclear waste disposal. Up till now, policy was to recycle all spent fuel. This entails extracting uranium and plutonium to produce MOX fuel. Unit 3 at Fukushima Daiichi was one of only a handful of reactors using MOX fuel, or 'pluthermal' as it's called here. This recycling was supposed to be an interim measure until fast breeder reactors were developed for full scale utilisation of plutonium. (The technology can be used for making nuclear weapons but Japan with its Peace Constitution got special permission.) There is a prototype reactor, Monju in Fukui, but it's been plagued by problems. There's also an expensive reprocessing facility at Rokkasho in Aomori which is not being used either. So the government has abandoned this policy and is looking at underground storage which is cheaper. But, as you can imagine, there are big questions about whether this is safe in earthquake prone Japan. (I've put some of the technical terms in a list below. They're words you hear all the time in Japan but hard to get your head round.)

As I left the office Saturday evening, came upon long queues at the station for trains to neighbouring town of Sukagawa. The fireworks display is on tonight and it's one of the biggest. Some girls in yukata, many tweeting away on mobile phones. Nice.
Good night

Stop Press: (Sunday 19 August)
Hosono, Minister of the Nuclear Accident, has just announced details of the interim storage facilities. There are to be 12 (!), most of them in a band around Fukushima Daiichi (2 in Futaba, 9 in Okuma), with one south of Fukushima Daini in Naraha. Negotiations re-start.

原発   genpatsu
nuclear power plant   

使用済み核燃料   shiyozumi kakunenryo
spent nuclear fuel

高レベル放射性廃棄物   ko-reberu hoshasei haikibutsu
highly radioactive waste

最終処分場   saishu shobunjo
permanent repository (somewhere that's going to keep the waste safe for 100,000 years, like the underground facility in Onkalo in Finland)

中間貯蔵  chukan chozo
interim storage (like they're planning near Fukushima Daiichi, to take waste for 30 years)

核燃料サイクル kakunenryo saikuru
nuclear fuel recycling (Japanese policy up to now)

再処理  saishori

プルサーマル  purusahmaru 
 'pluthermal', a Japanese word (from the English plutonium and thermal) used for the plan to make MOX fuel from spent fuel

And finally,
トイレのないマンション toire no nai manshon
A bit vulgar but used to describe the nuclear waste problem: it's like an apartment without a toilet!

Friday 17 August 2012

O-bon Holiday

Six days holiday here for the o-bon festival. It's a time when families get together. There's a big exodus from Tokyo, traffic jams on the expressways. I took three days off to stay with friends in Kitakata. Avoided the expressways (which as well as being crowded I have to pay for) and took the tourist roads over the mountains which have been kept toll-free to encourage visitors. Over the Bonari Line, then up to Ura Bandai, round the lakes, dropping down the other side into Kitakata. Great to get out of Koriyama. The scenery such a rich, lush green.

My friends don't have air-conditioning so it was summer as it used to be: the whirring of electric fans, the scent of mosquito coils, the drone of cicadas in the trees outside, watermelon, and a festival (where do they get their energy?). We visited the Yauemon sake brewery, always a pleasure, and joined a short guided tour learning more about making sake.  We visited some shrines and temples including Nakata Kannon where you can put your arms round a wooden pillar and pray that when your time comes you'll have a swift and trouble free death. Didn't try it as friend swears an acquaintance did it and dropped dead that very night! Discover that we've now done all six must-see temples in the area (会津六詣で Aizu Roku Moude). Tourist places seemed busy and back to normal though we were told that weekdays are quiet.

Had a comment on my last post: if we in Koriyama are exposed to more than 1 mSv/year and are 'under observation', what about people overseas? First, you have to understand that the 1 mSv/year is for airborne radiation only. Before the accident, levels in Koriyama were 0.06 μSv/hour which internationally is very low and works out at 0.52 mSv/year. The figures for the UK (according to the HPA data) are 1.3 mSv/year UK average and a whopping 7.8 mSv in Cornwall. The sievert is supposed to calculate the effect of different kinds of radiation on the body but there's a nagging fear that radioactive particles from the accident may be more harmful than naturally occurring radioactivity from building stone and radon gas. I don't know if this fear is justified or not.  Coincidentally, Fukushima University which is coordinating the questionnaires sent out last summer, has just published its second report. It doesn't give figures for Koriyama as such, but for this area (県中)51% of people are estimated to have been exposed to below 1 mSv/year and 44% between 1 and 2 mSv/year. The report as a whole says there's no danger to health. 

Total exposure (2.7 mSv in UK and 6.2 mSv in US) refers to all types of exposure: that's external from the air, internal from food and breathing, medical, air travel etc. But as you say, what levels are safe? It does seem that the ICRP recommendation of 1 mSv/yr is too low.

The response to the questionnaire mentioned above has been low - only 450,000, or 22%. I find this hard to understand. I was quick to fill mine in and send it off but it seems most people can't be bothered. They must think they're alright.

The Olympics are over, O-bon is over, and it's back to work tomorrow. Seems like the end of the summer. 

Drumming festival in Kitakata
Kokoro Shimizu Hachiman Shrine
In Ura Bandai today (with my friend's husband)
Anyone know what this is? 

Saturday 11 August 2012

Update: 11 August 2012

Dear all,
One year five months since the disaster. How are we getting on? If you came to Koriyama you'd see a bustling city. But look closely and you'll see lots of empty spaces - buildings damaged by the earthquake are still getting pulled down.

We've got used to the radiation and I think most people are being sensibly cautious. The monitoring post in the park near my apartment registers 0.412 μSv/hr. It was 0.438 when it was put up in February, so not much of an improvement but a lot better than it was. I remember it was about this time last year that levels in Koriyama eventually fell below 1 μSv/hr.

Since accumulated exposure works out at more than 1 mSv/year (there's a calculation based on being outside for 8 hours a day and living in a wooden house), we're officially 'under observation'. But since I live and work in a concrete building and don't go outside much I reckon I'll be under 1 mSv this year. Though children play outside at school (the playgrounds have been cleaned) most parents are not keen on children playing outside so indoor play facilities are the thing.

Food testing seems to be pretty good. The authorities, farmers, supermarkets - everyone is testing. And you can take your home-grown produce to the local village hall and get it tested. Every sack of rice is to be tested this year. Generally people are a lot more confident that the food we eat is safe. 

At the latest count there were 162,000 evacuees: 100,000 in Fukushima prefecture (32,000 in emergency housing) and 62,000 who've moved away, the last figure slightly less than last month though not clear yet whether this is a trend.

There is good news. After the government reorganised the no-go areas according to contamination levels and issued guidelines for compensation, four areas (Minami Soma, Tamura, Kawauchi and Iitate) have been reorganised and yesterday the barriers were lifted in Naraha. This area is only 20 km south of Fukushima Daiichi and home to Fukushima Daini nuclear plant. Levels are under 20 mSv/year and it will be made ready for the ban to be lifted, in two years if all goes well. Residents don't need those white suits anymore but will be able to go in and out as they please, though they can't stay overnight. The clean up is to start in September though they're still arguing over where to dump the waste. Infrastructure has to be repaired, police will have to patrol the area. In spring 2014 they'll start to get local government, schools and hospitals going again. 50% of local businesses say they want to go back. There is light at the end of the tunnel.

Compensation varies according to which zone you're in and it's a package covering property, household effects and 'stress'. As an example, a family of three in a house built 5 years ago in the no-go zone (over 50 mSv/yr) would get over 57 million yen (440,000 GBP) whereas in areas to be prepared for repatriation, like Naraha above, the same family would get 23 million yen (177,000 GBP). There are plenty people objecting saying that while the government may say the ban will be lifted, they don't want to go back and want more money.

Compensation for lost earnings is being paid separately and some are doing very nicely thank you. Playing golf when the weather's fine and pachinko when it rains. Doesn't go down well with hard-working  people here.

At Fukushima Daiichi work started on dismantling Reactor 4 which houses thousands of spent fuel assemblies and was rumoured to be unstable. Then there was the scandal of the subcontractor (7th down the line!) who fitted a lead cover to his dosimeter as he knew he was over the limit and then got his staff to do the same. Apparently the dosimeters sound an alarm that can't be silenced. Deplorable. But it does highlight the problems. The limit for workers was raised after the accident but is now back to pre-accident levels: 100 mSv over 5 years, with no more than 50 mSv in any one year. Once over the limit you're not allowed to work again in high radiation areas. There are 3 to 4,000 people working every day at Fukushima Daiichi. But a shortage of workers is a serious problem and this kind of accident is not going to help.

The biggest problem at the moment is sorting out where to put the interim storage facility for highly radioactive waste. (中間貯蔵施設 chukan chozo shisetsu). Nobody wants it in their backyard and discussions broke down in March. The government say it's an interim facility, that it will only be there for 30 years, that the waste's final resting place will not be in Fukushima, but the locals, understandably, are not convinced.

So many people affected, such complications in so many different spheres. Decommissioning the plant alone is going to take 30 years. The task is enormous. But I guess month by month there is progress.
Sorry this got rather long.

Thursday 9 August 2012


Summer here means festivals and it seems like every town is having a festival of some kind.  Last Friday and Saturday was the Uneme Festival in Koriyama. Hundreds of people danced in a parade and the road in front of Usui department store was lined with stalls offering street food and all the fun of the fair.

Yesterday I had to visit our office in Sendai and took a peek at the Tanabata festival which is on for three days. There are events all over the city and a parade but the thing to do is to walk through the arcades and admire the huge streamers hanging from long green bamboo poles. And, of course, make a wish. I walked from the station to our office, a mile of so, threading my way through the crowds and the paper streamers dangling at head height. The festivals culminate next week at the end of the 'o-bon' festival. 

Summer also means swimming and I'm glad to report that children have been able to swim in school pools this year and that the main pool in Koriyama's 'Culture Park' is back in business. Last year air-borne radiation around the pool was 1.0 μSv/hr and swimming was prohibited for those under 15 resulting in the sad sight of the pool being used by a few lonely decrepit swimmers. This year the City has spent 40 million yen (300,000 GBP) on decontamination. A new type of air pressure hose was used to clean surfaces which sucks up and removes the contaminated water. The top soil in flower beds was removed and shrubs cut back. Concrete around the drains (which tend to be 'hotspots') was removed, soil was dug over. Levels, which in May before work began, were 0.8 were reduced to 0.35 μSv/hr. With temperatures over 30'C every day, the pool is full of kids having a great time.

Koriyama's spent a lot of money already on the clean up (the bills go to Tepco). It took the lead early on, before the prefecture and the government got their act together, scraping the soil off school playgrounds. The current big project is cleaning 100 houses in Ikenodai where levels are particularly high. It's going to cost 5 million yen (38,000 GBP) per house. This is the only way to go. Only if people can see that levels are down will they stop leaving and start to come back.

There are a lot of bleary-eyed people in Japan at the moment. Live TV coverage of the Olympics goes on until 2 or 3 in the morning, maybe later. Much soul-searching over no gold medals in judo; satisfaction with silver medals in team events such as swimming, table tennis and fencing, and great anticipation over the women's soccer team who have reached the final.
But I'm going to get an early night!

Sign on the platform at FUKUSHIMA station.
'Your journey to Fukushima cheers us up. Thanks for your support.'

Outside SENDAI station. Off to the festival ....

'I wish that my granny will come out of hospital soon.'

Can you see the long green bamboo poles (trees) on which the decorations are suspended?

The Toho Bank contingent - nearly 200 men and women!

Our local clowns

This seems to be a current trend: a light fluffy bow over the top of the obi.

Drinks of shaved ice - it really is hot here!

Pretty, pretty sweets.

Thursday 2 August 2012

Hearings on Energy Policy

A few weeks ago the government announced it was going to hold a series of hearings around the country to debate the role of nuclear in future energy policy. Speakers were to be decided by ballot and speak for one of three options:
'In 2030, should nuclear provide 0% of Japan's energy, 15%, or 20-25%? '
The zero option means no new nuclear plants. The 15% option requires building 2 new plants to replace Fukushima and other older plants,  and the 20-25% option requires more new ones. (Before the accident, nuclear provided 27% of the nation's energy needs and the plan was to increase this to 50% by 2030.)

The hearings didn't start well. Some speaking for the 20-25% option turned out to be electricity company staff and there were allegations of the hearings being rigged. (Or maybe these were the only people who volunteered to speak for that option since 70% of the general population is in favour of the zero option?)

Anyway, yesterday the hearing came to Fukushima. The number of speakers was increased from 9 to 30, and 28 of these were in favour of the zero option, 2 for the 15% option. Here are some of their comments (from this morning's Fukushima Minpo):

How can other nuclear plants be reopened when there hasn't yet been a full investigation into the causes of the accident?
How can they open other plants when they haven't cleaned this one up yet?
No one's decided how to deal with spent fuel and nuclear waste. It's irresponsible to reopen the plants without dealing with this.
In theory, I would accept 20-25% but looking at the way Tepco works, zero is the only option.
We learnt that there are some things we can't control. There needs to  be more research into seismic activity in Japan. The results need to be made public and only then should we have these discussions.
We need power, and renewable sources can't provide enough right now. Each electric company should be allowed to operate just one nuclear plant but for a limited period only.
This issue should not be decided this way. Each consumer should be able to decide where to buy their electricity.
The same mistake should never be repeated. All nuclear plants should be decommissioned.
Once an accident happens, you can't restore things to how they were. People suffer health problems and families get separated. We need to find ways to make the zero option feasible.
Nuclear is not a clean option. It pollutes water, the sea and the environment. Japan should take the lead in not using nuclear.
The clean up is not making progress and our children are being exposed to radiation. Don't wait until 2030. Start now to take responsiblity for our children's future.

When the hearings were announced, everyone was cynical. They were to be completed in one month and people felt they were an attempt to rubber stamp government policy. It's still not clear how the opinions expressed in these hearings will be reflected in determining Japan's energy strategy. The Prime Minister has so far avoided comment.

Did you see the quay washed up on the Oregon shore? A football was fun but this is getting expensive! The Japanese government apparently considering helping with demolition costs. 
Still very, very hot here. Matsuri starts tomorrow.