Friday 31 May 2013

Frozen Wall and Festivals

An ambitious high-tech plan has been unveiled to stem the flow of groundwater into the reactor buildings at Fukushima Daiichi. Vertical pipes dug into the soil at 1 metre intervals all around the four reactors (a distance of 1.4 kilometers) would contain a special coolant which will freeze the surrounding soil and create a frozen wall to keep water out of the reactors.  It's been proposed by Kajima Construction and the government's going to foot the bill. This is in parallel with the existing plan to pump water out before it reaches the reactors and bypass it into the sea. It is hoped that by using these two methods the reactors will be dry in EIGHT years time so decommissioning work can continue. Apparently it's a technology used in tunnelling where the soil's kept frozen for a couple of years. This wall will have to be kept frozen for 30 - 40 years. 

It's a lovely day today but Osaka and Tokyo are officially in the rainy season and it won't be long before the weather here turns overcast and the humidity soars. I'm making plans for the weekend. There's a big festival on in Fukushima city with a smaller version here in Koriyama. The famous big festivals from this part of the world are getting together for an annual event which started after the disaster in 2011. So we have the huge paper floats from the Nebuta festival in Aomori, the Kanto festival in Akita with lanterns on long poles, the Tanabata festival from Sendai as well as the huge straw sandal festival from Fukushima and numerous homegrown drumming groups etc. It's called Rokkonsai 六魂祭 which means Six Souls Festival (it's a play on words of Rokken 六県 which means the six prefectures in Tohoku). English website here.

It'll be good to see these festivals whilst the weather's relatively cool but it's going to need some planning as it promises to be very crowded.
More later

Wednesday 29 May 2013

Osaka and back

I went to Osaka for a meeting last Thursday and once again admired the Shinkansen bullet train which got us there in four hours. The journey on the fastest train, Nozomi, was smooth and not at all tiring, speeding from Tokyo to Osaka, a distance of 345 miles in two and a half hours. Someone was telling me about plans for a new line, the Linear Central Shinkansen, to join Tokyo and Nagoya but looping up through the mountains of Nagano and Gifu. It's a magnetic levitation (Maglev) system and the trains run at over 500 km (that's 310 miles) per hour. Unlike Britain, local authorities see the new railway as a golden opportunity and have been vying to attract the route and new stations. The route to Nagoya will open in 14 years time and in 30 years time you'll be able to travel from Tokyo to Osaka in one hour. Goodness.

Last week saw more in the unending saga of cock-ups and dearth of safety awareness in the nuclear industry - a Level 1 accident at a research centre in Tokaimura in neigbouring Ibaragi prefecture where 33 workers were exposed to radiation, and ventilation fans spewed the stuff outside.

But there is good news too. You remember the worst-case-scenario WHO report which got a bad reception here in February? Well, the UN Scientific Committee has brought out a more realistic report based on two years data which has concluded that no one in Fukushima has been exposed to more than 100 mSv, the threshold for cancer. A one-year old within the 30 km no-go zone who was evacuated would have been exposed to between 20 and a maximum of 82 mSv and is no danger of developing thyroid cancer.

The report also calculated the amount of radioactive material emitted from Fukushima (collective dose only one thirtieth that of Chernobyl) and concluded that Fukushima is not another Chernobyl. The draft report is being discussed at a conference this week and will be presented to the UN General Assembly in October. More here:
Asahi Shimbun: UNSCEAR Report

By a strange coincidence, my weekend away turned out to be a celebration of 80 year olds. Yuichiro Miura, alpinist and professional skier, successfully reached the summit of Mount Everest beating his own record as the oldest person to climb the peak. The friend I stayed with is 80. She goes to a computer class every week and her hobby is making DVDs from her archive of photos and music. Her latest project is to get her Esperanto class on Skype! She's worried that they're getting too decrepit to attend a weekly class so she's trying to organise the teacher and the others to group chat. On my way back on Sunday I stopped off in Yokohama to support dancer friend Bodypoet in a production called Node, Old Man of the Desert. The 'old man' was an 80 year old Butoh dancer (Yoshimoto Daisuke) who was thrown around quite violently. I was told that he was in great shape and no need to worry! So here's a toast to the hale and hearty octogenarians in this country of longest living people!
Bye for now

Wednesday 22 May 2013

Costly mistake

You remember the leakage of contaminated water from storage pools back in April estimated to be 120 tonnes and 7.1 billion bq. of radioactive material? The plastic wall of the pools did indeed split but once Tepco got round to digging holes and actually measuring the amount of leakage, the figure turns out to be a mere 20 litres! The fault seems to have been in mistaken settings for the instruments used to measure water levels in the pools. Within days a decision was taken not to use the seven pools and they're all being emptied. What a palaver. Tepco has apologised yet again for the anxiety caused. 'Shinpai o kakete moshiwake nai'. Quite.

And then there was the furore over safety at the Monju fast breeder reactor in Fukui. The head of JAEA (Japan Atomic Energy Agency) resigned over the matter but only the day before the PM had told the Diet that the nuclear fuel cycle policy (making MOX fuel for fast reactors) would continue. The Monju plant is a white elephant. It costs a fortune to maintain and has only produced one hour of electricity since its first testing 20 years ago. The problem is that Japan has 40 tons of weapons grade plutonium that need to be used up, as fuel in this reactor. France and the United Kingdom reprocess nuclear fuel to make MOX fuel. America doesn't because of non-proliferation considerations. Japan was given special permission, which was not granted to Korea. So this is a political problem, not an economic one.

Nearer home, for those of you who know Koriyama, demolition work has begun on the Marui building in front of the station which has been vacant since 1994. Buildings aren't blasted to bits with dynamite in this country. It's a very tidy process. (Even more incredible is the gradual taking apart of the Akasaka Prince Hotel in Tokyo you can see featured on the BBC website under the headline 'Japan's Incredible Shrinking Building'). Round here the building is covered in sheeting and the building dismantled inside. Then one day the sheeting comes down revealing a headturningly empty space. There's a lot of pedestrian traffic on three sides of the Marui building and I feel a bit nervous passing so close but no one else seems to bother. The owners plan a new building of shops aimed at young people.

I'm off to Osaka tomorrow for a meeting and staying on for the weekend. Highs of 28'C forecast. So nothing from me till next week.
Stay well

Sunday 19 May 2013


Another lovely day and this time I headed a few miles south to the town of Sukagawa which is famous for its Peony Garden (須賀川牡丹園 Sukagawa Botan'en). This is a garden on a grand scale, 10 hectares (that's 25 acres) of mature trees, ponds, and flowers throughout the seasons. But the main attraction is the peony and according to the guidebook there are 7,000 plants in 290 varieties. The peony, known as the 'rose of the Orient' is a showstopper but the garden goes back a long way. It was started in 1766 as a medicinal garden for the roots of the peony were used as a medicine. Whatever. It's a nice place for a day out and the car parks were full.

Wysteria for shade

This zelkhova (keyaki) is hundreds of years old.
Can you see the two bamboo shoots growing up near the base of the trunk?

Less flamboyant, these plants are 150 years old and the original  medicinal  plants.

Saturday 18 May 2013


Fukushima doesn't have famous wysteria like those you see in Kyoto. No exotic red bridges, as far as I know. But today I drove out to Ja no Hana Park about 20 minutes north of Koriyama where there's a wysteria 100 metres long and over 300 years old in the grounds of what used to be a daimyo's country residence. Here are some pictures but they only tell half the story. It was a multi-sensory experience: the wonderful scent, birds singing, bees buzzing and the loud croaking of a bull frog in the pond.

In England wysteria is generally grown against a south facing wall in an attempt to catch any warmth in the cold northern climes. But here it grows wild and one of the pleasures of driving around the countryside at this time of year is to see it everywhere, exuberant and prolific.
The fine weather is set to break tomorrow evening.

Wysteria trellis and pond at Ja no Hana park, Motomiya

Lovely scent. Lots of bees.

People out for the day. You can even buy one in a pot to take home. Cheap at 3,000 yen.

Wysteria in the wild. Can you see it clambering high up in the trees?

Wild amongst the undergrowth. Beautiful.

Newly planted paddy, graves and wysteria

Twisted round a telegraph pole

Climbing up a wire

Tuesday 14 May 2013

Steady as she goes

Lovely, lovely day. Slight breeze here in Koriyama, the windy city. Perfect.

From the press accounts hitherto I thought it was a foregone conclusion that Tepco would be releasing groundwater into the sea from today but the fishing industry haven't agreed. They say their rank and file members don't fully understand the situation and have asked Tepco to hold meetings to explain. They also want the government or an outside organisation to be more involved. They're calling for an outside organisation to monitor the water going into the sea and for the figures to be made public. They have a point. What with the recent problems - the power outage, the leaking pools - they don't trust Tepco.

And this is the crux of the problem. They're worried about this being the catalyst for a fresh round of 'rumours' (fuhyo). This is the trouble with this whole radiation thing. You can't see it or feel it so it's a breeding ground for all kind of rumours, speculation, playing on people's fears. It's a psychological war. 

Farm produce is still not selling, or selling at well below market prices. Fukushima JA, the powerful agricultural cooperative has just enlisted the help of some 'Hula Girls' from the Hawaiian Centre in Iwaki to promote Fukushima produce nationwide. I had to laugh when I saw some of the staid executives lined up with the girls. And yesterday two girls were filmed dressed in cowboy boots and red stetsons planting rice by hand in the mud! But it's no laughing matter. These are desperate times. 

As for the fishermen (are there any women?), fishing for a few types of fish started last year but it's not back to normal by any means. For the past two years they've been living on compensation, and payments for retrieving debris and test fishing. Just when it's looking like they might be able to fish again, this happens. However safe it is on paper, they're worried it might start a new set of rumours. And it's not just in Fukushima; it could affect fishing up and down the coast.

Whilst this is going on, our Prime Minister, Mr Abe, on a roll from the success of his monetary easing Abenomics, is pushing sales of nuclear plants abroad. During the Golden Week holiday he signed agreements with Turkey and the United Arab Emirates, and in June he's to visit Poland to push sales to Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary. Meanwhile in his own backyard, the Nuclear Regulation Authority has uncovered 10,000 (yes, ten thousand) omissions in routine checks of equipment at the Monju fast breeder reactor in Fukui and a 'lack of awareness of safety in the organisation'. Hmm. I wonder if the people in Poland or Turkey are aware of this? It certainly doesn't make sense to us.

This weather's too nice for working. The wysteria is in full bloom and smells gorgeous (there's even some near the station where I work), then there are azaleas and peonies. Roll on the weekend.
Love to you all

Sunday 12 May 2013

Update 11 May 2013

Hi folks
Time for my monthly update. You'd think things would be settling down at Fukushima Daiichi - after all, the end of the accident was proclaimed back in December 2011 - but there's just one problem after another. It doesn't affect us here in the middle of the prefecture but it all adds to the uncertainty for those who've been evacuated. More of them later. First, let's take a look at progress at the site.

Dealing with the ever-growing volume of contaminated water from the reactor buildings continues to be the main priority. It's increasing at a rate of 400 tonnes a day. The fuel in reactors 1 to 3 still requires cooling but that water is in a self contained recycled system although some water does leak out of cracks in the reactors. The main problem is groundwater pouring into the base of the buildings. This is pumped out and stored in cylindrical tanks covering large areas of the site. One solution was to construct large storage pools but last month there was a serious leakage so they're currently being emptied. The latest is that Tepco has sunk 12 wells at the top of the cliff behind the row of reactors to pump up some of the groundwater and divert it via a separate channel into the sea. This water has been tested and found to contain only 1 becquerel/litre of radioactive material so the local fishing industry is likely to agree. After all, this will reduce the overall volume of contaminated water from 400 to 300 tonnes/day.

On the other hand, the fishing industry have said they won't agree to water that's been through Tepco's other trump card, the ALPS cleaning plant, being dumped in the sea. This system removes 62 kinds of radioactive material but no amount of filtration, desalination or distillation will rid the water of the isotope tritium. So this water will have to be stored in more tanks.

There's also talk of building a wall underground on the inland side of the reactors to contain the groundwater. But this could have the adverse effect of altering the flow: if levels inside the building were higher, contaminated water would start to leak out into the soil and eventually into the sea. All very tricky.

There's been progress on the reorganisation of the evacuated areas. Futaba County was holding out for the whole county to be put in the 'difficult to return' zone ( the mayor resigned over the issue) but in the end they towed the line and went along with the government's plan to divide the county according to radiation levels. So by the end of this month all 11 counties that were in the original exclusion zone will have been 'reorganised'. 76,000 people are affected.

You'll recall that the exclusion zone, evacuated immediately after the disaster, was a crude semi-circle 20 km around Fukushima Daiichi. But the plume travelled north west and the new zones reflect actual levels of airborne radiation. The new 'difficult to return zone' (levels of over 50 mSv/yr) spreads in a band 30 kms in a north westerly direction. The area is barricaded. 25,000 people used to live there. Next there are areas of 20 - 50 mSv/yr, some to the south of the 'difficult to return' area but mostly in the north in Iitate County. These areas are 'restricted residence'. The 19,000 people affected can travel in and out freely but not stay overnight. Then there are the so-called 'areas being prepared for having the evacuation order lifted', where radiation is under 20 mSv/yr. 32,000 people used to live there. Businesses are allowed to function in this area and people can go to work - but the evacuation order is still in place, they can't stay overnight.

The terminology used to describe the new zones is clumsy (glossary below). As one man said, 'It's gone from four syllables (keikai kuiki) to six syllables (kinan konnan kuiki) but nothing's changed'. For those who used to live in the worst affected areas of Namie, Futaba, Okuma and Tomioka that may be true. The area is barricaded, they can't go back and don't know when they'll be able to return. There are still questions about the location of the interim waste storage facilities (though surveying has started), but no talk of buying land and property, and nothing definite yet about establishing 'new communities' elsewhere.

For those in the other areas, there is progress. Decontamination is well underway and most of the infrastructure is back to normal. People can go back and start to tidy up - although they're not allowed to stay the night. But in spite of the reorganisation, 150,000 people have evacuated (either because they're in these three zones or voluntarily) and they still have no idea when they'll be able to return home. And with the series of troubles at the nuclear plant, the power outages and problems with water, the accident is far from over.

On a brighter note, I saw on TV that Tachibana Primary School, which is in one of the areas in Koriyama with the highest levels of radiation, had its sports day outside for the first time since the disaster. Little by little there is progress.
All the best

警戒区域   (keikai kuiki )  The original 20 km exclusion zone.
帰還困難区域   (kikan konnan kuiki)  The 'Difficult to Return' zone, 326 with airborne radiation over 50 mSv/yr
居住制限区域   (kyoju seigen kuiki)   The 'Restricted Residence' zone, 143 with airborne radiation 20 -  50 mSv/yr
避難指示解除準備区域   (hinan shiji kaijo junbi kuiki)   The 'Preparatory Lifting of the Evacuation Order ' zone, 418 with airborne radiation under 20 mSv/yr

Thursday 9 May 2013

This and That

I added a few late photos to the last post on Children's Day so if you missed them scroll back and take a look. They're of Pep Kids, the indoor play centre here in Koriyama which I visited a couple of weeks ago with a visitor from England. She's a teacher and was really impressed. The equipment is first class, there's opportunity for all kinds of play, and it's super clean. Centres such as these have been set up here as children's growth was getting stunted through not being able to play outside but she thought London (and probably other cities) could do with them to tackle the growing problem of obesity. The kitchens for cooking lessons and rooms for counselling also got the thumbs up. And of course it's free. Who could we persuade to build one in Tower Hamlets?

I signed off the accounts of a subsidiary yesterday. There's a new tax which started on 1 April. Companies have to pay 'recovery tax', 10% extra tax. The system will last for three years (whereas the extra 2.1% on personal income tax will go on for 25 years). That company made a loss and had no tax to pay so we weren't affected but I thought it was a bit off that even companies in the disaster areas are liable. 

The government's announced that the tsunami debris on the coast will be cleared according to schedule by March next year. That's in Miyagi and Iwate. Of course here in Fukushima it's different. Some debris in the exclusion zone hasn't been touched yet. Still, taking three years to clear the debris is an indicator of the scale of the disaster.

Tepco has a new plan for dealing with the problem of contaminated water which is increasing at a rate of 400 tons per day. One of the problems is underground water that pours into the bottom of the reactors and gets contaminated. I hadn't realised but the nuclear plant is at the bottom of a cliff: land was excavated to build the plant at sea level (in retrospect, after the tsunami, seems a stupid thing to have done). As a result, water pours down in underground streams towards the sea. The plan is to sink wells at the top of the cliff and pump this water out. Then, after testing it, to dump it in the sea, probably starting next week. Apparently the water is no more radioactive than the rivers in the area and 100 tons per day could be diverted reducing the daily increase of contaminated water to 300 tons/day. At the moment the fishing industry seems inclined to accept the proposal. Certainly something needs to be done.

In a separate development, the emptying of those leaking pools of contaminated water has raised levels of radiation at the site to 7.8 mSv/year when it was below 1.0 mSv/year. 

It's been a lovely day today with clear views of Mount Bandai and with the snow capped peaks of mountain ranges further away seeming to float in the sky. Then in the evening a bright pink sunset. This is the best season of the year.

Monday 6 May 2013

Childrens' Day

I'm back in Koriyama after 10 days in England. It's Monday, the last day of Golden Week, and a holiday for Childrens' Day. The weather's sunny and warm - it would count as a summer's day in England. Here's a picture taken this evening of the koi-carp streamers over the river in neighbouring Sukagawa. Boys are supposed to grow up strong, like the carp, able to fight a way through the raging torrents of life.

But before I get back into the swing of things, let me mention a few things that struck me during my visit to England - things that you wouldn't see here in Japan.

One day I was changing lines on the London Underground at Oxford Circus and saw this guy with a bright red Mohican about 4 inches high. At first I thought he was in fancy dress but, no, he was a London Underground official, checking the train doors and whistling the all clear. You would never see anything like that in Japan. How would he wear his hat of office, for a start? I felt a kind of pride, confirmation of Britain's respect for diversity. 

Other good things included Wifi which was widely available for free in pubs, stations, even on the London Underground (though there was a small fee on mainline trains). You used to be able to get Wifi in Starbucks here but not any more. Then there was the multi-storey carpark which, to my daughter's bemusement, I much admired. You see it was built in brick to match its surrounds, and a rather handsome building, I thought. Here such buildings don't attract the eye of the planners and are eyesores. I also noticed that Japanese food and sushi was widely available. Sushi and salad seems to be a lunchtime staple. And I saw 'chocolate edamame' and 'wasabi peas' being sold as snacks!

What I didn't like was the way train tickets are priced. I knew I had to book in advance to get a good deal so on Friday, for a journey the following Wednesday, I looked on the internet and saw the price was 30 pounds. I went to the station on Monday to buy said ticket only to find that by then it cost 137 pounds. I went back to the internet, and in the end bought a ticket for 39 pounds by selecting a train that left three hours earlier than I'd originally intended. So visitors to Britain, beware! Don't pitch up at the station on the day to buy a long distance train ticket. You'll pay an exorbitant rate. Book in advance. The website you want is Traveline. 

Anyway, back to Japan. What's been happening in my absence? I see there are more claims for compensation from Tepco.  The prefecture is going to apply to the ADR (Alternative Dispute Resolution) for compensation for money spent to deal with loss of consumer confidence and for loss of tax revenue. And bizarrely, Tohoku Electric (the electric company in this region) is to sue Tepco (Tokyo Electric) for loss of revenue in all those areas that were evacuated and don't use power any more. Crazy. It's hard to see an end to all this compensation. Will it bankrupt Tepco? Bankrupt the country?

The papers have pictures of a relaxed Crown Princess Masako attending the inauguration of the King of the Netherlands, her first overseas visit in 10 years since she got ill with depression. Now people will want her to resume duties in Japan. But how will she be once she gets back to the suffocating atmosphere of the Japanese court?

Back to Childrens' Day. There seem to be lots of events round and about. Japanese have always adored children but now they are a precious commodity. The number of children has been falling nationally for the past 32 years and there were 150,000 less children under 15 on 1 April than a year ago. The situation is worse here in Fukushima. It had been falling by about 5,000 a year but fell dramatically after the nuclear accident (from 281,000 in 2010 to 257,000 in 2012). This year the figure is 7,500 down from last year at 249,000, more than the usual fall of 5,000 per year but sort of stabilising.

Here are some pictures of kids having fun at the Pep Kids indoor play facility in Koriyama. An unused building was donated by the supermarket chain York Benimaru at the instigation of a local paediatrician worried that kids weren't getting enough exercise. It's run by the City and is a fantastic place.

This is the dedicated sand and water play area.

Make believe shop

Bouncy castle

Bike area

External View. Inside there are also kitchens for kids to learn cooking
and counselling rooms for parents.
I had a super holiday meeting up with my family in England. No earthquakes. No worries. But tomorrow it's back to work. I'm just hoping the next few months remain reasonably tranquil.
Love to all