Sunday 30 September 2012

Autumn Festival

Koriyama has a summer festival but it's a relatively recent introduction. The autumn festival, Aki Matsuri  秋祭り is the one that's in people's blood. The festivities went on for four days. Last year the children didn't get to participate as radiation was still high. But they made up for it this year. The festivities culminated last night when 33 mikoshi shrines from different neighbourhoods were carried up and down the main street and finally made it to the main shrine, Hachiman-sama. They were lucky with the weather. Tonight, Sunday, as I write, a typhoon has hit the Nagoya area and here the rain is lashing down.

The excitement of the Matsuri is the sound of the drums, the pipes and the shouting. Photos are a poor substitute. But here goes ...

All the fun of the fair - shooting gallery and yakitori

Day Three, Friday, was for the kids' 

There are floats lit with lanterns ...

... and underneath kids play drums and pipes. They've been practising for weeks.

This is what I liked. Young and old joining in.

The carts are pulled by lines of kids. Not as many kids as there used to be, I was told.

Catching goldfish. The trick is to scoop them up really quickly
before the wafer  gets wet and disintegrates.
Only in Japan!
Day Four and the adults get to show their stuff. After carrying the mikoshi shrines
up and down the main street a few times, they head for this shrine. Classical dancing on show too.

Here they come!

The guys with the whistles set the pace - letting them go 
up the steps, and sometimes pushing them down again!

The jostling and showing off begins. They're not going to be let up the steps yet!

Washoi, washoi!

Finally, with a rush, they storm the steps and approach  the shrine.

A prayer for a good year ahead.

And now, the long walk home.

Sunday 23 September 2012

New Nuclear Watchdog

At long last we have a new Nuclear Regulatory Commission  (Genshiroku Kiseicho  原子力規制庁) to replace the discredited NISA (Hoanin  保安員). The latter was not independent, situated physically in the Ministry of Economy and Trade, and headed by ex-bureaucrats. When the shit hit the fan last March, they were exposed as unprepared and incompetent. Famously, the head of the agency assured Prime Minister Kan that there would be no explosions - then one of the reactors exploded an hour later. Then instead of letting those at the site get on with the job they interfered causing confusion. The sight of NISA officials on TV who were bureaucrats and not experts and couldn't give answers to the basic questions about our safety that we craved was a big factor in the public's loss of confidence in the government's handling of the disaster. There have been other disclosures. In 2006 when there was a review of measures to deal with accidents, the then head of the agency, afraid of raising fears over the safety of nuclear plants, is on record as saying 'Don't wake a sleeping child'.  So a fresh start is needed. 

There's been criticism of the appointment of one Tanaka Shunichi as head of the new agency. Indeed I got an e-mail from avaaz urging me to add my name to a petition to block Diet approval of the appointment. I've added my name to many avaaz campaigns but this one I won't be signing. He may be a compromise candidate but at least he's in the job and started work and there is so much to do. The old agency did some work on stress tests until this March but has done nothing since. The Prime Minister took the decision to open the Oi nuclear plants. He should have had advice from an independent organisation such as this. 

Tanaka is accused of being a member of the 'atomic village' and was indeed deputy director of the Japan Atomic Energy Research Institute and acting Chairman of the Japan Atomic Energy Commission but he did disagree with the power industry and was regarded as a 'tough customer' (Asahi Shimbun). On the plus side, he hails from Fukushima City, and since the disaster he's been active in decontamination work, scraping soil along with the best of them. He's already stated that he's going to stick with the 40 year rule for scrapping nuclear power stations and that before any more nuclear plants can be re-opened he wants to see emergency plans for 30 km round each plant, in addition to the stress tests for the reactors. And the decision that endeared him to me was that an office is to be set up next week not far from Fukushima Daiichi with 15 staff to monitor work going on there. Officials coming to live and work here! That must be a first.

The Diet was in recess so Noda made the appointments at a Cabinet meeting. There's a phrase here you hear a lot: kimaranai seiji 決まらない政治. It means that politicians aren't making decisions, nothing's getting done. At least the appointments were made and the agency is functioning. I don't want the Diet to block this and stall things. There's so much to do regarding safety: decisions over decommissioning after 40 years, investigations into the seismic faults under some of the plants, the criteria for reopening the 50 idle reactors, not to mention the safe decommissioning of Fukushima Daiichi.

The hot weather has broken at last. As of yesterday, daytime highs in the 20s, putting an end to the 30'C highs we've had for two hot and sticky months.

Sunday 16 September 2012

Zero Option U-Turn

Hi all,
After all the hearings, demonstrations and opinion polls confirming that public opinion is against nuclear power, the ruling Democratic Party of Japan (民主党 minshuto), gearing up for a general election, cobbled together the main points of its new energy policy last week. The goal was to be no nuclear plants by 2030 (genpatsu zero 原発ゼロ), and the main points were: nuclear power plants to be taken out of service after 40 years, the decision to restart plants to be taken by the new nuclear standards agency, and no new nuclear plants to be built.

The very next day local officials from Rokkasho in Aomori in the very north of the country and home to the nation's only reprocessing plant, went to Tokyo to protest that if all the nuclear plants are going to be closed and not use the fuel they’ve been reprocessing then they’re going to send the fuel back to where it came from - nuclear plants all over the country. They don’t want their area turned into a dump for nuclear waste.

America expressed concern too. What’s going to happen to the 30 tons of plutonium that's been extracted from the spent fuel and was to be re-used? Plutonium that could be used for nuclear weapons if it got into the wrong hands. The UK and France aren’t happy either. They’ve been reprocessing fuel for Japan and have stocks that they want taking off their hands.

Then yesterday the Minister of Economy and Industry went to Aomori and gave the green light to two new reactors under construction. If these are built they will be in operation until the mid 2050’s. What’s going on here? The ‘new energy policy’ has been exposed as a shallow, vote-getting policy.

The LDP (Liberal Democratic Party, 自民党 jiminto) which was in power since the war but lost three years ago has been parading its five aged leadership candidates (including one ex prime minister). The five appear together on TV and say more or less the same things. More like an advert for the party than rivals. Odd. But they're all saying that though they sympathise with the sentiments for zero nuclear the reality is much more complex. Even the PM no longer talks of 'zero nuclear' but 'reducing the dependence on nuclear'. Maybe the tide has turned and there’s going to be more measured debate from now on.

The 'miracle pine tree' (奇跡の一本松 kiseki no ippon matsu) in Rikuzen Takada, the only one left standing after the tsunami, is  terminally ill and has been cut down. It’s going to be stuffed and put back in time for the anniversary next year!

We moved the factory a year ago – in lovely autumn weather. This year it’s still hot, over 30’C every day. When will it end?

Tomorrow, Monday, is a holiday. Respect the Aged Day. My mother-in-law turned 100 in January and joins the 50,000 people in this country aged over 100. She's sound in body and mind. Amazing.
Bye for now

Tuesday 11 September 2012

One and a half years on

It's time for my monthly round up of events, on another landmark date. First, let's see what's happening at Fukushima Daiichi. Reactors 1, 2 and 3, where meltdown occurred, are in a state of cold shutdown though radiation inside the reactors is at fatal levels and radioactive materials continue to escape from the damaged buildings at a rate of 10 million bq/hr which sounds a lot but is a fraction of what it was. Levels are monitored on site and reported to be 0.02 mSv/yr posing 'no major risk to health'. 

You may recall scare stories a while back about the danger of Unit 4 collapsing (it houses spent and unspent fuel), but the roof has been removed to reduce the weight on the structure and last month two fuel assemblies were removed, tested and found to be intact. There was also a scare last month when water levels for cooling dropped in all three reactors simultaneously due to a leak blockage in the labyrinthine network of plastic piping that circulates the water.

The long term plan is to start removing fuel from Unit 4 in December next year. Then within 10 years, fuel will start to be removed from the other reactors, work which should be completed 20 to 25 years from now. Closing the reactor down for good will take 30 to 40 years. Labour and expertise will be a problem. Few young people are going into the nuclear industry now.

161,000 people are still evacuated. In June the zones were redrawn according to levels of air-borne radiation and six counties have made plans for residents to return. So Iitate county which was famous for its dairy farms and 'slow life' and whose mayor pledged they'd be back in 2 years, now plans to have people return by March 2015 but it depends how the clean up goes and it's behind schedule. Naraha county, south of the reactor, most of which is in the under 20 mSv/yr zone, plans to return by 2014. But when you see people interviewed on TV they seem unsure. The government has said it will clean 20 m around each house but don't plan to clean the forests as removing fallen leaves and branches would cause erosion and a different set of problems. Understandable, but radiation drifts in from the woods, and young families are not going to return unless levels are under 1 mSv/yr.

More problematic are plans for the areas near the plant, which are (from north to south) Namie, Futaba, Okuma and Tomioka. They're in the 'hard to return' zones (over 50 mSv/yr) and the big cloud hanging over these areas is the issue of storage facilities for the waste from the clean up. There's talk of building 'temporary towns' (仮の町 kari no machi) in other areas but it's proving hard to organise. The government will pay for the housing but the host authority will have to provide services. Who would administer them? Two bureaucracies would be crazy. And what happens to the new towns in 5 or 10 years time when the evacuees move back? Lots of negotiating needed and no clear idea yet of how it will work. If they don't get a move on the only people left will be the old and the vulnerable.

After the cold spell in June it turned out to be a hot summer and there's a good crop of peaches and nashi pears in this major fruit growing region. I'm told the fruit were slightly smaller this year as the trees had suffered stress when the orchards were 'decontaminated' in the winter. This involved hosing down the trees and removing the bark. But it paid off and the fruit this year has been ND (no caesium detected) and has been selling well with prices 80% of pre-disaster levels for peaches and back to normal for nashi pears. They're even being exported. The first plane load of peaches left yesterday for Bangkok.

The early rice is being harvested and this year there's a proper system for testing. Every sack of rice goes through a machine and is given a sticker if it's clear.

Here in Koriyama, 56 kms from Fukushima Daiichi, the monitoring post at my local park tells me levels are down to 0.38 μSv/hr - falling every month now. Certainly, we're more relaxed these days. We've learned to 'live with radiation' though an expert on TV the other day (Kimura Shinzo) told us to remain vigilant. After-school club activities (部活 bukatsu) have been resumed and apparently external exposure is on the rise. He recommends no more than 2 hours outside in areas of 0.5 μSv/hr.

Nationwide, the anti-nuclear movement gains momentum. The Friday night demonstration outside the PM's residence continues. People are saving electricity. When the Prime Minister re-opened the Oi nuclear plant in Fukui, the argument was that without it there would be a 15% shortage of electricity in the Osaka area. As it turned out, people used 11% less than in 2010, which begs the question, was the power from the Oi plant needed? It is a remarkable achievement. Not only are people, horrified by what happened in Fukushima, advocating an end to nuclear power, but they're actually doing something to show that it's not needed. It represents a real shift in values.

The Japanese parliament has closed down whilst the parties choose leaders in preparation for a general election. I wouldn't mind but they're not doing their job as lawmakers. The Japanese people deserve better government.
Well, that's all for now. Everything is taking such a long time but there are snippets of good news which we hang on to.

Sunday 9 September 2012

The Power of Print

Hi folks
In this digital age, a couple of things have made me think recently about the power of the printed word. First, some exhibitions by friends Kate Thomson and husband Katagiri, sculptors in Iwate and Edinburgh. After the earthquake and tsunami, power  supplies, mobile phones, land lines and the internet were down but the postal service got going within a few days and in many cases the first news that loved ones were safe was by postcard. To quote the foreword to the catalogue, 'Inspired by the tangible communication of posted messages and the fact that thoughts contained in a single picture can speak louder than words, we started the  "Postcards to Japan" project'.

Artists, schoolchildren and other groups sent in postcard-sized artwork and there is music from a Scottish police choir (very good) to accompany it. I saw it in Fukushima Museum of Art in June (photo above) and it's on now in Minami Soma, Fukushima until 23 September. 

The couple have followed this with another exhibition "Postcards from Japan" by artists working in the Tohoku region and are working tirelessly as artists to 'heal the broken heart'.

Incidentally, you know that photo of a ship marooned on top of a building in Ishinomaki Otsuji? Katagiri tried to have it preserved as a memorial but to no avail. I can understand that in the early days, when feelings are raw, you don't want to be reminded and there will have been safety considerations. But I saw on TV only the other day that in Minami Sanrikucho people are using the rusty shell of the defence centre where many people died as a sort of  shrine. A far less eloquent memorial. Pity.

Secondly, hurrah for the Fukushima Minpo, our local paper which has received a series of awards from the Japan Newspaper Association for its 'excellent' reporting this past year. As some of you will know, I've been a fan of this paper for a while. To quote the reasons for the award: 'The paper ran a series of features on the many issues the people of Fukushima were facing, giving them the information they needed. It researched the historical connections between Fukushima and national atomic energy policy. Its reporting not just at the site of the accident but over a wide area is a precious record by international standards.'

In a survey carried out by the paper itself last autumn, 61% of people said they read a newspaper more than before the disaster. In the first few months this paper was our lifeline. The national news on TV only gave us 5 minutes and even that paled after a few months. Local TV wasn't much better, only 10 minutes or so. Yes, there's the internet but why do I, who everyday browses the Financial Times, BBC Online and the Nikkei for my general news, hungrily devour the paper when it comes to news about Fukushima? I've come to the conclusion that internet news is for browsing, it's sort of detached, news by outsiders. The national press treat Fukushima as a single entity but, especially after this accident, what with the tsunami and the effects of the radiation, each small area has its own particular problems and the local paper was able to address these. Secondly, the detail. When levels were high, in the region of  2μSv/hour in Koriyama, mothers scoured the paper to find out what the levels were in their area, and what direction the wind was blowing. Later the information became available on the internet but the paper was there first. (Every day there's still a whole page on radiation data, airborne levels, food testing results etc.) The printed word on smelly newspaper has an immediacy, an urgency you don't get on a computer screen. Then, the issues we were having to get to grips with, the situation at the nuclear plant, radiation and health issues, food safety, national energy policy, renewable energy, these were such difficult questions, you need to concentrate and I don't know why, but it seems easier somehow to digest in print. 

But it's not just the medium, it's the reporting. The paper has run and still runs features tackling these big issues and presenting them in an easy to understand format. And there are upbeat features - everyday a page entitled 'Fukushima won't be beaten' (福島は負けない Fukushima wa makenai) featuring ordinary people doing positive things. But the main reason for the paper's success is that it is on our side. It speaks for the people here. Several times I've punched the air after reading one of the paper's editorials! Here is the paper's website and you'll find there a valuable archive but again, the website's got none of the detail or immediacy of the paper. Strange.

Into September but weather still hot. Maximum temperatures around 30 'C. The 'lingering heat' they call it (残暑 zansho). Hot but bearable, better than the 'ferocious heat' (猛暑 mosho) we've had up to now. Even verging on the pleasant in the mornings. Roll on autumn.
Love to all

Sunday 2 September 2012

Rum Tales

This disaster's turned up some strange stories. Here's a selection from this week's papers. First, medics at the hospital in Hirata-mura which installed whole body counters last October were amazed to find a man in his 70s who has 19,508 becquerels of caesium in his body. When some of the dried shiitake mushrooms he'd been eating were measured they were found to contain 140,000 bq/kg! (The limit is 100 bq/kg.)  He also ate chestnuts and wild ferns. Fortunately for him, his lifetime accumulated exposure is calculated to be 0.85 mSv, so well below the 100 mSv where there is a proven risk of cancer. Most people are sensibly cautious. I am super cautious. I just cannot imagine how anyone could be so unconcerned! The doctors advised him to test his food before eating it.

But if there were more people like him, there might be fewer bears causing trouble. Japanese are great foragers, for roots and shoots and mushrooms. But with the trees being contaminated, people aren't going out into the woods and mountains like they used to. So the bears are getting bolder. One hit by a train, two hit by cars and several sightings last week alone.

And here's an unexpected turn of events. In view of the outbreak of thyroid cancer after the accident at Chernobyl, the prefecture decided early on to test all the kids in Fukushima to make sure the same didn't happen here. 38,000 children have been tested already with no signs of cancer yet. However, a third of the children have been found to have lumps on their thyroids. Benign and probably nothing to worry about but a survey of this kind has never been done before and no one knows what's normal. So a similar survey of 4,500 children in other parts of Japan, well away from Fukushima, is to be carried out as a benchmark. We're going to be the most researched people in the world! Let's hope some good comes of it.

Then there's the story of the couple in Naraha who ignored the order to evacuate and stayed home to look after an aged parent, 92 and bedridden, who they were convinced would die if evacuated. The house was within the 20 km zone imposed last year but the ban was lifted three weeks ago, on 10 August. The family had supplies brought in by the army and police and made odd forays outside the zone. They also had to put up with some rather unpleasant accusations, but were vindicated in the end. Incidentally, in April last year levels at the house were 0.5 - 1 μSv/hour, a lot less than in Koriyama at that time. Forced evacuation caused many deaths at Chernobyl and the same happened here - whatever anyone says about no one having died as a direct result of the nuclear accident.

And finally, here's a glimpse of life in the sea. There's been a ban on fishing in Fukushima since the disaster though fishing for a big red octopus started a couple of months ago and operations are to be extended to 10 more types of fish soon. But one kind of cod found further north was found to be contaminated. The theory is that since the sea off the Fukushima coast is not being fished, it's got overcrowded and there's too much competition for food so fish are swimming off looking for less crowded waters.
It's a rum world indeed.
Bye for now