Friday 21 December 2012

Up, up and away

There's excitement in the air as the year draws to a close and people rush about trying to get things finished off in the old year.  There are queues at the lottery kiosks. 600 million yen in prize money to be won this year (roku oku 6億, over four and a half million pounds). But I'm off. I'm going to spend Christmas with my family in England.

Panicked a couple of weeks ago when I realised my visa was due to run out but it's all done now and I was amazed at the new system. In July the law regarding immigration was revamped and we are no longer aliens! I don't have to register as an 'alien' but when I need one I can get a 'residency certificate' (juminhyo 住民票) like any Japanese citizen and instead of my 'alien registration card' I now have a 'residence card'. Neither do I need to get a re-entry permit to come back into the country. I remember the old immigration office on the east side of  Shinagawa before it was redeveloped. It was not a nice place to go. And when I first came to Koriyama in the 80s I had to travel 2 hours to Sendai to get a re-entry permit every time I wanted to leave the country. Things have changed a lot.

I'm about to get the train to Tokyo. For the first time in decades I have a flight from Haneda airport. But I have to be at the airport at 4:00 am for my flight at 6:30 tomorrow morning. The agency I booked with (HIS) offers a unique solution. I will be spending the night at the hot spring theme park in Odaiba (Oedo Onsen Monogatari), bathing and resting on reclining chairs, before boarding a bus to the airport at 3:25 am. The things I do at my age. I'm going to be exhausted. But at least I'll be clean!
If I don't get another chance, I'll wish you all a very happy Christmas.
With love

Thursday 20 December 2012

Lessons from Fukushima

The International Atomic Energy Agency Ministerial Conference on Nuclear Safety was overshadowed by the election but with 700 delegates from 130 countries and organisations it was a big event for Koriyama. There aren't that many foreigners here and I know most of them so it was unusual to see so many strangers in town. I could tell something was up when I saw a car with blue diplomatic plates (never seen one here before) and ladies wearing heels. Koriyama ladies may dress up when they go out but no one over the age of 20 wears high heels outside in this weather!

The conference took place in the Big Palette conference centre which was where I was when the earthquake hit and which for five months afterwards became an evacuation shelter for 2,000 people. As if on cue, there were a couple of strong aftershocks on Saturday afternoon which must have concentrated minds in the conference hall.

Friday and Saturday were given over to visits (Fukushima Daiichi, decontamination work, Fukushima Medical University), and there were some important announcements. Next year the IAEA is to establish a centre in Fukushima City to train experts from around the world to deal with nuclear emergencies. Other projects include technical assistance in decontamination, dealing with waste, and radiation monitoring, in addition to working with Fukushima Medical University on health management. In the joint comunique the IAEA pledged to do more to support safety in developing countries. Then the dignitaries departed leaving the experts to carry on with working level meetings for two more days. Having been here, and seen all that's happening in Fukushima, one would like to think that lessons have been learned and safety around the world will be improved.

Sunday was election day although only a third of the electorate bothered to vote. The conservative LDP won by a landslide. Big names in the ruling DPJ (including 8 Cabinet Ministers) lost their seats and at about half past eleven on Sunday night PM Noda announced his resignation. The new Prime Minister will be Shinzo Abe who held the post for a year in 2006 but resigned because of stress/stomach trouble. During the election campaign he was constantly photographed tucking into 'tonkatsu' (Get it? tonkatsu, fried pork cutlet. Also katsu 'to win'.) The election result was a resounding No to the ruling party. The so-called Third Force was too fractured to gain a majority. 

Whatever your politics I think most people here are relieved that the government coming to power will have a solid majority and will be able to get on with the business of running the country. Here in Fukushima we just want things speeded up. 30,000 people in barrack-like emergency housing face another cold winter.
Bye for now

Saturday 15 December 2012

Koriyama Clean up

Hi folks
Radiation levels are not that high in Koriyama compared with other places in Fukushima but the city's trying to clean the place up so levels are back to a normal 1 mSv/year (0.23 μSv/hr). Schools, nurseries and routes to school were decontaminated last year. Parks and other places where people congregate were cleaned over last winter and in the spring. Now they've got round to domestic houses and gardens. Work started in October and by the end of this month 14,200 houses will have had their gutters and drains cleaned, shrubs and trees cut back, and lawns replaced (pics below). 

In a separate initiative, agricultural land is being decontaminated. Our company owns some land which is officially farmland and last night I attended a second meeting about the plans. It's all very organised. The land will be scattered with zeolite which will be ploughed in to a depth of 20 cm. Then soil samples will be taken and potassium silicate added at a later date according to the results of the tests. We were given poles and flags which we were told to set up on our land asap - and leave there. The organizers hope they will be a good advert for Fukushima farming and might encourage more farmers to have the work done in the next round. One man said he hadn't farmed his patch since 3.11 and asked who would be responsible for getting rid of the weeds. It seems the owners are responsible. I'm ashamed to say that our company has not been looking after this land properly so we are in the same boat. So we can't get the work done unless we clear the ground (understandable, it is the Ministry of Agriculture that's in charge). There's no way yours truly is going to shift that vegetation so we will have to pay someone with the right equipment to do it. Need to think  about this.

In the meantime, here are some pictures taken yesterday of work in progress in Saikon near Sakubuta Pond where levels have remained stubbbornly  high. It was a lovely sunny day.
Sign saying that decontamination of houses is in progress
A garden being cleaned. Top soil removed, trees cut back.

Sakubuta pond which had the highest levels in the city.
The grass under the trees has been removed and replaced with a covering of netting.
More work done here.
And with good results. Work completed on 4 December has  reduced
levels from 2.44 μSv/hr to 0.67 μSv/hr
I know waste has to be left on site but I hope they're not going to
leave these here on the doorstep!
Local volunteers cleaning the street near my flat one Sunday morning.
Yesterday was a lovely day - Mount Bandai to the west of Koriyama  ...
and Mount Adatara to the north.

Tuesday 11 December 2012

Monthly Update

Time again for the round-up of events I do every month around the 11th. News about Fukushima has been overshadowed by the coming election although both the Prime Minister and the leader of the main opposition party kicked off their election campaigns here - first time that's ever happened. With 12 parties to choose from and 40% of voters still undecided, it's going to be an interesting election. Voting next Sunday, the 16th.

But people here are not convinced by glib promises to speed up decontamination work or aid recovery, they want to see more action. Everything seems to be taking so long. Negotiations - for reorganisation of the no-go areas, for the interim storage facility - have been tortuous.

The 20 km no-go zone is being re-drawn and the barricades have just gone up in Okuma, which is where Fukushima Daiichi is situated. In theory the area is split into three according to levels of radiation but the council fought to have all residents treated the same - for how can you have a minority or residents return when there are no facilities? So all 11,000 residents now know they can't go back for 5 years. But as one resident said, it will then take 2 or 3 years to get electricity and water up and running, another year or so to rebuild his house. So he's looking at 10 years. But who knows?

The no-go zone is a wilderness. I hear that cats and dogs have been picked up by charities but there are 1,000 cows on the loose and wild boar are rife.

Slight progress on negotiations for the interim storage facility which is essential for the clean-up. After high handed announcements by the government and a frosty reception by local authorities the prefecture intervened and the government has got permission to do field surveys. But it's already December and plans are supposed to be completed by next March. It's all taking so long.

The other big news this month concerns the safety of nuclear plants in earthquake-prone Japan. The new nuclear watchdog, the NRC, has been flexing its muscles and decided that a fault running under No.2 reactor at Tsuruga on the Japan Sea coast is indeed active - well at least in geological terms, we're talking hundreds of thousands of years ago here. It seems the reactor should never have been built there in the first place so it looks as if it will not be re-opened and may be decommissioned.

Outside of the restricted areas, life here in Fukushima goes on as normal. Most of the evacuees are in Iwaki on the coast which is comparatively warm and has low levels of radiation. That area is doing well: lots of new houses, space on industrial estates at a premium. There are grants for investment and for employing evacuees (though some of these will cease next March). Koriyama too has seen an influx of people and is doing reasonably well.

Fukushima's a busy place these days and national and international organisations continue to lend support. We've just had the Japan women's professional golf tournament in Iwaki, the national ballet concours in Fukushima, a while back there was the national shogi (Japanese chess ) championship. I saw on TV tonight that two schools for evacuees that re-opened in Aizu had a surprise visit from Disneyland characters. And this coming weekend Koriyama is to be host to the IAEA Ministerial Conference on Nuclear Safety no less. Fukushima used to be a backwater that no one had heard of. Maybe there is a silver lining ...

That reminds me. We're going to get another payout of  80,000 yen (615 GBP) - more if you're a child or pregnant - to cover 'mental stress' between January and August this year. I'd better make the most of it. It's to be the last. ( 17 December, Correction: Got the papers today. I'm only eligible for 40,000 yen for expenses. Children and pregnant women get an extra 80,000 yen for stress.)
The snow has melted in town but the hills and mountains around are white. Beautiful to look at but cold.
P.S. I eventually got round to replying to the comments on Two Winds. Take a look.

Sunday 9 December 2012

New Season Rice

Truly into winter now. The autumn leaves blown off the trees and two or three inches of fresh snow this Sunday morning.  I've been so busy of late I didn't get much chance to enjoy the autumn but the harvest is now safely gathered in. 

Rice is big here. When I first came to Japan most people ate rice three meals a day. But as people discovered the delights of hamburgers and cream cakes, consumption fell and the government reduced the acreage grown to rice in  a policy called gentan 減反. Fukushima has the dubious honour of non-cooperation in this policy with the worst record of gentan in the country.

Incidentally, here's an interesting statistic I heard on the radio recently. 2010 was the year when the Japanese ate more meat than fish for the first time, and also the year when consumption of flour based products (bread, noodles) overtook consumption of rice for the first time.

But here in Fukushima people really like their rice and I've become something of a convert. New season rice shinmai  新米 is the thing and it is delicious. There was some criticism that the new system where every sack of rice has be to passed through a machine to measure levels of caesium would delay sales but the 200 machines in the prefecture seem to be coping. Some sacks are taken off for further testing (it's reported in the papers) but they're generally proclaimed ND (non detectable) and the rice is safe to eat.

A few months ago I saw a film (at the Sukagawa Short Film Festival) about a group of rice farmers in Tenei County, south of Koriyama, who practice organic farming and for three years running had won the gold medal for the tastiest rice in Japan. The film was a documentary of the lengths they went to to make sure their rice was safe. 

First stop the Japanese Society of Soil Science and Plant Nutrition which ever since the nuclear tests at Bikini Island in the 1950s has monitored radiation in soil samples all over Japan and determined that the take up of caesium by the rice plant is 1%. In April last year the soil in Tenei County measured 1,128 bq/kg, which would give a level of  11.28 bq per kilogram of rice - well within safe levels - but the farmers decided to do everything they could to reduce levels further. In systematic testing they added potassium, zeolite, and prussian blue to the soil. The last is the ideal medium (it was fed to cows in Chernobyl) as it only absorbs radioactive materials whereas zeolite also absorbs nutrients such as potassium which can affect the health of the plant. Prussian blue is expensive but they managed to get funding for the experiment and I'm left with the abiding image of bright blue water being hosed high over the emerald green fields. 

Farmers here have been on a steep learning curve and gone to tremendous efforts to make the rice safe. Here's a picture of my favourite rice from Hirata County and a close up of the label that's on every bag of Fukushima rice (with home page address and phone number).
Now if you'll excuse me, I think I'll make some sticky pink rice (mochi rice and azuki beans) to cheer me up and keep out the cold.

'2012 -  Safe Fukushima Rice'
Heisei 24 nendo
Anzen na Fukushima ken no o-kome

Friday 7 December 2012

I'm OK - again

We had a big earthquake this evening at twenty past five. It was Magnitude 7.3 at the epicentre off the Sendai coast. Force 4 here in Koriyama though it seemed stronger. I was alone in our office on the 8th floor. There's supposed to be an early warning system but my phone starting buzzing as the shaking began. The quake went on for a minute or so, up and down and side to side. I dived under our heavy conference table. It brought it all back. 

It was Friday night anyway so I decided to leave. Walked down the stairs, still quite shaken, but amazed to find that outside everything seemed to be  going on as normal. People here are made of strong stuff. Did a bit of shopping before heading home. Nothing fallen off the shelves in the shops. NHK had cancelled all programmes and the TV was wall to wall earthquake. It's a good service. Returned to normal programming about quarter to eight when the tsunami warning was lifted. Experts on the TV are telling us that such aftershocks are to be expected and there may be more in the next few days. I've filled up the bath and checked my supplies! 
But I really was amazed as I walked round the streets and shops this evening at how calm everyone was.