Sunday 30 June 2013

Return. Return?

Miyakoji could be the first area to have the ban lifted. It was on the periphery of the exclusion zone, north of Kawuchi, and since April last year it's been one of the areas being 'Prepared for lifting of the Evacuation Order'. Decontamination work has just been completed. It was supposed to have been finished in March but was delayed due to the snow and because they had to deal with more waste than expected. Over 3,000 workers cleaned houses, farmland, roads and woods over an area of 570 hectares at a cost of 6 billion yen (60 million dollars), double the original budget. Air borne levels of contamination have been 'reduced by half'. Looking at the figures, most places seem to have been reduced to 0.3 to 0.5 μSv/hour, much the same as places here in Koriyama where decontamination work hasn't been done. When the ban is lifted, within the next few months, people will be able to go back (at the moment they can't stay overnight) and get on with their lives. Interviews on TV seem to show a mixed reaction: some people are eager to get back, others say they still won't be able to make a living out of farming there. 

So good news, or at least a move in the right direction for the people of Miyakoji. But what of people who have homes nearer to the plant in the 'Difficult to Return' area? When we went to Tomioka a couple of weeks ago we got talking to a family from Futaba county when we stopped off at a motorway service station. They were capped that a foreigner cared about them and they loved my Fukushima T-shirt! But it became obvious that they just wanted to talk - to anyone who would listen - in an outpouring of sadness and frustration. They were living with their daughter in Narita: she works at the airport. They didn't know when they would be able to go back. All they've been told is that it will be at least five years.They go back occasionally to see to the house. They have to check in at the border, change into those white boiler suits and are only allowed in for a couple of hours. They told me there are rats in the house and their fields are overgrown. It's depressing. Their future is uncertain. 

In the meantime, a shipload of MOX fuel has been delivered from France, the first since the disaster, but Prime Minister Abe refuses to talk about scrapping the (bankrupt) reprocessing project or reducing Japan's dependence on nuclear power. There's an election of the Upper House in a few weeks time. On a TV phone-in programme yesterday morning, 39% said nuclear policy was their main election issue (39% too for pensions and social security, only 7% each for volatility in the stockmarket and relations with China). But the government fudges on the nuclear issue. I'm sure serious discussions are going on behind the scenes but they give the impression that Fukushima never happened and are far from forthright about plans for the future.
That's a brief round-up for now. More later.

Tuesday 25 June 2013

Japan Cat Network

A couple of weeks ago I visited an acquaintance who was volunteering at a cat shelter in Inawashiro. The shelter is run by Japan Cat Network which was established in 2000 down in Hikone, near Lake Biwa. After the disaster Susan Roberts came up to Fukushima to help abandoned animals in the exclusion zone. She's been going mainly into Namie, rescuing and arranging spaying and neutering of cats. They also have feeding stations and cameras for the other animals roaming there. 

When I was at the shelter she was caring for 34 cats and 8 dogs. Each cat has its own story. A few were in cages, still too traumatised to be able to interact with the other cats or with people. Most had settled down and seemed content in their new surroundings. But as I heard how each cat had come to be in the shelter and the time and effort given by those running and volunteering at the shelter to rehabilitate the cats both physically and mentally, I came to appreciate just what a huge task this is. Here's what Susan says about her work:

"I came out after the disaster to help evacuees with the many animal issues which they continue to face. The volunteer teams that we organize have rescued more than 600 animals since March 2011, including chickens, cats, and dogs. We help to care for animals on behalf of evacuees that have difficulty returning to the area themselves. We continue to care for some of their pets here at our shelter, until guardians can find pet friendly housing. We are an entirely volunteer run organization, and we'd be happy to hear from those interested in becoming shelter volunteers, foster care givers, and/or adopters for pets. We would also be happy to provide advice and support for people hoping to help stray or abandoned animals in their own communities. We can be reached at 

Japan Cat Network depends entirely on donations so if you're inclined please give a donation, or support  their fundraising events, or best of all, consider fostering or adopting a pet. It's a very worthwhile cause and NPO certificated.  Check it out here:
That's all for now,
Airy outdoor enclosure

Poor puss. Lost a paw.

How many cats? Four is the answer.

Friday 21 June 2013

New Safety Regs. and Father's Day in Aizu

Busy showing you my holiday snaps of Tomioka I've been neglecting my duty to keep you informed of the news over here. And it's been quite an important week for Japan's energy/nuclear policy. A week ago the government produced its annual White Paper on Energy which was conspicuous by its absence of any reference to zero nuclear power. On Monday LDP policy chief Sanae Takaichi, expounding on said energy policy, put her foot in it when she said  no one had been killed as a result of the accident at Fukushima. The Fukushima LDP immediately lodged a protest. The figures are in the paper everyday: direct deaths from earthquake and tsunami 1,599; deaths from the evacuation 1,415. She was careless but again it just seemed to highlight the gap between Us here in Fukushima and Them in Tokyo. 

The Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) has at last decided on new safety requirements for Japan's nuclear plants which will come into effect on 8 July. Plants will have to have filtered venting systems, emergency control rooms at least 5 km away and seawalls. Any reactor built on top of a seismic fault will not be allowed to restart. Reactors are to be decommissioned after 40 years but this can be extended by 20 years in certain circumstances. Of Japan's 50 usable reactors, two are currently in operation. Six plants (12 reactors) are expected to apply under the new system. The key will be enforcement. There was an interesting piece on Hodo Station (TV Asahi) last night. Did you know that in the US (which has 104 nuclear reactors), plants have their own combat forces in case of attack, and a permanent staffer from the NRC who independently constantly checks the plant for safety? Japan's NRA only has 80 staff to check that the new safety requirements are being met. 

To finish here are a few photos of last Sunday when I took my visitor on the Grand Tour as an antidote to the depressing scenes we'd seen the day before in Tomioka. The weather wasn't great but it was a Sunday, Father's Day and everyone was out and about and happy. (If you double click on a photo you can see the series full screen.)
All the best

Fun at Lake Inawashiro
(photo courtesy Jeremy Hoare)

Jet skiers on Lake Inawashiro
(photo courtesy Jeremy Hoare)
Aizu Castle (Tsurugajo 鶴ヶ城)

Don't ask! I have no idea what these guys were up to.
(photo courtesy Jeremy Hoare)
Aizu food (grilled mochi, tofu, herring and a stick of konnyaku) at  O-Hide Chaya (お秀茶屋)
(photo courtesy Jeremy Hoare)
The Samurai school outside Aizu (Nisshinkan 日新館)

Panorama over Lake Inawashiro from the 'Gold Line' tourist road
(photo courtesy Jeremy Hoare)

And to end the day, peace and tranquillity in Ura Bandai

Tuesday 18 June 2013

Kawauchi Revisited

In the last two posts I showed you what it was like in Tomioka, hit by the tsunami and with the ban on entry only recently lifted, which we visited last Saturday. From there we travelled west over the mountain road into Kawauchi which I visited last year Kawauchi-mura May 2012. Kawauchi was evacuated in March 2011 but the ban was lifted in September that year and the council moved back in March 2012. But even now only 40% of the residents have returned to live full time. Nonetheless, there were people in the fields, people riding bikes, and a lot of decontamination work had been done. Last year I recorded radiation levels of 0.414 μSv/hour, this time 0.22. That's less than in my local park in Koriyama! Last year it was depressing to see the fields laid waste when at this time of year the rice should be pricked out in neat lines and the fields flooded with water which on a fine day reflects the mountains and the sky. This year about half the land was back under cultivation, the first planting since the disaster. The rice will be purchased by the county, tested, then thrown away. Still, after Tomioka, it was good to see that an area can be regenerated. But here are the photos. Judge for yourself.
Bye for now,

Leaving the ghost town of Tomioka. The traffic lights are working. But there's nothing else.

People were working all along this mountain road (Route 36) removing soil and undergrowth
 to create a clean  strip along the side of the road.

Timeslip. Ironic. The first thing we saw as we entered Kawauchi was an election poster of
Kan, PM at the time of the disaster, promising to make Japan well again! (元気な日本を復活させる)

The next thing we saw was this huge tip for bags of contaminated soil.

But I approve of  this kind of reconstruction. An old farmhouse with brand new thatch.

Some of the land was still uncultivated. About half the land was being farmed.

Houses are decontaminated and the area 20 metres around.

Same here.

This will be the first crop since the disaster.
Good to see things getting back to normal.

Tomioka 2

This is a continuation of the last post. More pictures of our sally into the disaster area on Saturday. Disturbing images. Nothing has been cleared. I don't know why.
Someone's garden

Someone's entrance hall

Someone's bath?

Curtain flapping in the wind

Where are the occupants? Nothing has been cleared.
'Basic Principles of Nursing Care'

It seemed like time had stopped still. Only the birds singing and the sound of the sea in the distance.
Tomorrow, pictures of Kawauchi which I visited last May and which I'm glad to say is showing signs of recovery.

Tomioka 1

Tomioka Station - hit by the tsunami, deserted and overgrown
I had a visitor from England this last weekend. On Saturday we visited Tomioka in the disaster area. On Sunday, as an antidote, we travelled west to Aizu and saw people having a good time in the sunshine. But first let me show you what we saw in Tomioka, a deeply sad experience. 

Tomioka is just south of Fukushima Daiichi, where Fukushima Daini (Fukushima No.2 nuclear plant) is situated. The area was evacuated in March 2011 but since the reorganisation of the county on 25 March, the ban has been lifted in some parts. We travelled on the expressway as far as Hirono, and then onto Route 6, the north-south coast road. A few miles before the barricade into the no-go zone, we turned right towards the coast and Tomioka station. We saw no police, hardly any cars. It was a ghost town. One is inclined to say, 'Recovery? What recovery?' but I'll let the pictures tell the story.

Hirono thermal power station at the end of the expressway. It's been going great guns
since the nuclear plants were closed down. Things seemed normal here.
But pretty soon, deserted streets, damaged buildings.

Empty school. Bags of contaminated soil in the yard.
The new houses were OK but the old ones have had it.
Then onto the coast. 

Boat carried by the tsunami about half a mile inland
Tomioka Station with Fukushima Daini nuclear plant in the background. 

Outside Tomioka Station. 0.531 μSv/hour
- some parts of Koriyama are as high as this.
More in the next post.

Thursday 13 June 2013

Update: 11 June 2013

Two years and three months after the disaster and, as usual on the 11th of every month, the TV and newspapers show the police out on their monthly search of the shore and tell stories of the survivors. 

What good news was there this last month? First and foremost, the population's gone up for the first time in three years. The population of Fukushima prefecture on May 1st was 1,950,341 people which was 746 more than the previous month, due to more people moving in (or moving back?) than moving away. 

The other big news is that Futaba county, the last area in the old exclusion zone, was re-organised. What this means is that the blanket ban over a 20 km radius of Fukushima Daiichi has been replaced with a different system. The 'difficult to return zone' (kikan konnan kuiki 帰還困難区域)with radiation levels over 50 mSv/year runs in a narrow north-west band but other areas have been opened up and are more accessible.

As I've mentioned in this blog before, a UNSCEAR report has concluded that there will be no increase in cancers due to the accident. It's based on two years' data and is more realistic than the 'worst case scenario' report produced by WHO a while ago. While on the topic of health, three more thyroid cancers have been discovered during the screening of all under-18 year olds, bringing the total to 12 although the experts maintain it is too soon for them to be caused by the accident.

Press were allowed into Fukushima Daiichi a few days ago. The new building over Unit 4 (which houses spent fuel rods and was very rickety) is looking good. Cranes will be put in next and work to remove the fuel will begin towards the end of this year, forecast to be completed by mid 2015.

Plans for removing fuel from Units 1 and 2 have also been brought forward: to be completed by 2022 - although decommissioning is still going to take 30 to 40 years. (According to our local paper, until the 62nd Year of Heisei, or 2050. Do they think the Emperor's going to live that long?) 

Meanwhile, the plant at Fukushima Daini (Number 2 Plant, about 12 km south of Fukushima Daiichi) has been repaired. It too was inundated by the tsunami but kept its power supply going. It's sparkly clean and new power sources have been set up on higher ground. Ready to go, in fact. That's odd. The governor of Fukushima has declared there'll be no more nuclear power here and today presented Prime Minister Abe with a letter saying just that. I wonder how this will pan out?

There was a meeting in Koriyama at the weekend about the 'new communities' for the evacuees attended by the affected areas and the authorities that have offered to host them. Budgets have been worked out and the government will foot most of the bill. Three to four thousand new houses promised by 2015. The evacuees welcome the funding but what took so long?

Reading the papers another thing that strikes you is the number of court cases for compensation. Relatives of those who died, local governments, utility companies, even the whole county of Namie (10,000 people) are suing for compensation. Most are settled out of court through the office set up specifically to handle compensation but some go on to court. In the US the nuclear power plant in San Onofre, California is to close. It seems to be a complicated case but Mitsubishi Heavy Industries is being sued as it produced the steam generation system which has been giving trouble. Who would risk investing in nuclear? It's so expensive when something goes wrong. 

June 11th was also something of a milestone for me personally. I'm no longer a director of the box company I used to own, just an 'advisor'. I'll miss the daily drive out of town but I'm happy to leave the management of the company in good hands.
Good night

Monday 10 June 2013

Wild Azaleas and Lilies

The rainy season was supposed to have started in Osaka and Tokyo a couple of weeks ago but the whole country has enjoyed dry, sunny weather with hardly any rain. I've been making the most of it getting out and about in Fukushima. It really is a beautiful part of the world.

There's a place I'd always wanted to go to, a plateau home to wild mountain azaleas, in the hills east of Koriyama. On the first weekend in June I climbed up there with a friend. It's not on the main tourist drag, just a local beauty spot, but the weather was perfect and the views spectacular: one of those times you feel glad to be alive.

Takashibayama  near Ono-machi, Fukushima.
We were told it's a bad year. There are usually more flowers.
Rhododendron Kaempferi (Yama tsutsuji)

Another magic moment on Saturday when I visited the village just outside Koriyama where they make traditional dolls. A colleague had been given a good-luck daruma as a leaving present but didn't know anything about them, a gap in his knowledge I felt I had to put right. The scene in the farmhouse was magical and I didn't want to intrude by taking photos. As usual, the workers, only two of them, were sitting on the floor applying the damp paper to the wooden moulds and painting the finished dolls. Little daruma left to dry on sticks in baskets of straw shone bright red in the sunshine. All the shoji were pushed back so the side of the old farmhouse was open from ceiling to floor. And skimming silently in and out of the house were swallows. The silence, perfect harmony of people and nature. 

Maybe it was too quiet for seventeenth generation Hashimoto-san who seemed proud of the brand new car park which has been built over the rice fields just down from his house. The city helped him pay for it and he's all set now for some tourist buses. Before the disaster he was one of the stopping off places for the Fukushima bus tours but they haven't re-started yet. (Takashiba Deko-yashiki, Nishida-machi, Koriyama)

On Sunday I went to visit my friends in Kitakata, west of the prefecture, north of Aizu. They were saying that tourists are returning to the town and that there are queues for the famous Kitakata raamen noodle restaurants, some even sellling out before lunch (In Kitakata there's a wierd custom of having noodles for breakfast, called asaraa!) But they did add that tourist buses are few and far between. 

I went with them to see more flowers, this time lilies - himesayuri - which grow wild on a hillside outside the town.You can see why those early plantsmen, Kaempfer, von Siebold et. al. were excited by the exquisite flowers they found growing wild in Japan - wysteria, peonies, azaleas, lilies - which they took back to Europe where they were hybridised and came to grace Victorian conservatories.

Himesayuri Hill in Kitakata

Lilium rubellum (Himesa-yuri)

View of the Iide range, which separates Fukushima and Yamagata prefectures

Unfortunately, the weather's set to change. There's a typhoon in the south which may head up this way later in the week.
Love to all