Wednesday 31 July 2013

Airborne Radiation 2

Hello again,
Last time I talked about the survey meter that I borrowed for a week from the city office. This time I'll share the results of the dosimeter that I borrowed from the same place for a month. It's a bit like a blue thermometer that you carry around in a pocket or on your belt.and it calculates accumulated radiation. The city asks you to record the results every day along with an estimate of how many minutes you were outside and where you were.

For me, it was clocking 2 μSv/day. At the end of the month this was worked out to 0.65 mSv/year which after subtracting natural radiation in Koriyama of 0.35 mSv/year left me with only 0.3 mSv/year in additional radiation as a result of the accident, well below the government target of 1 mSv./year. When I handed the dosimeter back I was told that it was low probably because I live and work in concrete buildings 7 and 8 floors up and I don't go outside much (usually less than an hour a day). I was told that many people are recording more than 1 mSv/year.

Incidentally, this 1 mSv/year does refer to radiation over and above natural radiation. (The term in Japanese is  年間追加被ばく線量 nenkan tsuika hibaku senryo.) But even so, natural radiation is so low here that even with the additional radiation, levels are still lower than many places in the world.

This is a point that the authorities are keen to stress and the Fukushima prefecture website now has banners and links showing comparative levels in other parts of the world. And you might be interested to check out Safecast, an independent organisation which monitors levels throughout the world and also here in Fukushima.
Next time, I'll look at the decontamination that's going on in Koriyama at the moment.
Bye for now

Wednesday 24 July 2013

Airborne Radiation 1

I've been trying to get to grips again with radiation levels in this town. The last time I did this was two years ago. Levels which had been as high as 8 μSv/hour on 15 March 2011 fell to 2 in the summer of that year. Now they're down to about 0.3. That's micro sieverts (μSv) per hour. There are 1,000 micro sieverts in 1 milli sievert (mSv). 100 mSv (in a single dose, over the long term, over a lifetime?) cause cancer.

Koriyama has natural airborne radiation equivalent to 0.35 mSv/year. In normal times the ICRP dose limits are 1 mSv/year for members of the public and 20 mSv/year for radiation workers (for 5 years). After the accident at Fukushima Daiichi, areas over 20 mSv/year were evacuated. But there was confusion over what were safe levels for the rest of us. ICRP emergency standards were for a band of 1 to 20 mSv/year. There was outrage when the Japanese government set the acceptable exposure level for children at 20 mSv/year (the same as for evacuation) so they eventually brought it down to 1 mSv/year. Koriyama City is committed to decontaminating all areas to 0.23 μSv/hour which equates to 1 mSv/year.

Two years ago there was only one monitoring post in Koriyama. Now, we have monitoring posts outside every school and nursery and in every park. And the City is offering free use of monitoring equipment. So about a month ago I pitched up at the ground floor of city office and borrowed a survey meter and a dosimeter. The survey meter (pictured below) measures levels of airborne radiation and I was able to borrow it for a week (14 to 20 June). The dosimeter measures accumulated exposure and I wore it on my belt for a month. Today let's look at the survey meter.

Outside city office - a standard 0.235 μSv/hour

The meter resets every 30 seconds and the first thing you notice is that levels are constantly changing. So it's important to realise that the monitoring posts set up outside schools and parks only show levels at that position and at that moment in time. Two meters away and the reading could be quite different. 

I found that my meter showed consistently higher levels than the monitoring posts (for example it was 0.365 μSv/hr on the post at Hayama no Yakata Park but showed 0.445 on my meter). When I mentioned this to the staff as I handed the meter back I was told that lots of people had made the same comment and that levels do vary according to the equipment used. The highest variance was at the post at the prefectural office (godo chosha) which is the official reading you see in the papers for Koriyama which when I was there showed 0.19 but the reading on my meter was 0.336. The monitoring post there was different from the others. Perhaps it takes an average over a longer period. I'd like to know the reason for the difference.

Generally speaking, levels were about 0.075 μSv/hr in my apartment and 0.09 in my office. There was not much variation between the rooms and whether the window was open or closed. I was told these are low because they are both concrete buildings and on the 7th and 8th floors. In the car, levels were about 0.2. Outside, levels varied from 0.2 on the east side of the city to 0.3 around the station area and 0.5 in the west. The highest I recorded was 0.9 in a park in the west after rain.

A lot of decontamination work is being done but actual levels were often higher than those shown on signs put up a few days or a week or so ago. Decontamination is needed but the winds blow, the rain falls and the levels change all the time. One thing I can say: don't go near any bags of soil, don't go near when they're doing decontamination work. Levels are high.

The whole thing was stressful and I was glad to hand the meter back.

BTW levels for Aizu were low at 0.1 μSv/hr,  Inawashiro and Ura Bandai were 0.07, the same as indoor measurements in Koriyama.
More on the dosimeter and decontamination soon.
PS Good discussion of the variation in monitoring posts here
PPS Place your bets on the name for the Royal Baby. Favourite is 'George' followed by 'James'.

Monday 15 July 2013

Your vote, please

It's a public holiday today. The weather is swelteringly hot in the rest of the country but here in the windy city of Koriyama there's a fresh breeze which makes the heat bearable. Here's a silly story to match the holiday mood. 

There's a trend in this country for every town and city to have its own 'character', as in Disney character. They're known as 'yurakyara' and it's serious stuff. There are national competitions and a famous 'character' will boost local industry and tourism. Not to be outdone, Koriyama has Gakuto-kun (Mr Musical Capital)  - for Koriyama, aka the Vienna of the North, has delusions of grandeur in the choral and musical spheres. Here's a picture of Gakuto-kun and his little sister Onpu-chan (Miss Minim) I took months ago and wouldn't have dreamed of mentioning but Gakuto-kun has come top in the qualifying rounds of the Tohoku (north eastern) region and is through to the national final!

A leader in the local paper urges us all to vote - for victory would be a piece of good news and show the world that Fukushima's not beaten. So, I call on you to cast your vote for our local mascot Gakuto-kun!
Voting starts on 10 July to 25th. Here's the link, scroll down and click on the gold bar (キャラいいね)under the picture of our hero. Thanks.
Enjoy your holiday,
8 August:  Gakuto-kun was 5th (1,981 votes) beaten by the character from Ishibashi in Chiba (near Tokyo) which got over 11,000 votes! 

Thursday 11 July 2013

Update 11 July 2013

The 11th of the month always gets a mention in the media although these days it's just a quick relay of the latest figures for the disaster: 18,550 people dead or missing and 2,688 'related deaths' (most of these are in Fukushima due to evacuation stress). The number of evacuees from the Fukushima accident has fallen below 150,000 for the first time (149,949 to be precise). It peaked in June last year at 164,000 but people are coming back or are moving into permanent accommodation.

The situation at Fukushima Daiichi doesn't get any better. The latest set of troubles centres on high levels of radiation in groundwater on the seaside of the reactors. The first revelation was in April when strontium and tritium were detected in a well in front of Reactor No 2 but this was put down to leakage at the time of the accident. However, levels of caesium have since been rising at an alarming rate (100bq/litre in April, 1,100 in June and now 2,300bq/litre) so there are real worries that all this stuff is seeping into the sea. Chemicals are being injected into the wells to solidify the water but again these are only stop gap measures. 

Yoshida Masao, who was in charge of Fukushima Daiichi at the time of the accident died two days ago. He was taken off the job late in 2011 after being diagnosed with cancer of the oesophagus and although his exposure was estimated at 70 mSv his illness is said to be unrelated - though you can't believe that the stress he was under wasn't a contributing factor. He's been hailed a hero and certainly watching those videos of the teleconferences with Tepco head office in the aftermath of the accident you have to admire his leadership and presence of mind. He famously disregarded an order to stop injecting water, and when they were trying to open the vents he told his boss not to get in the way, 'disturb shinaide kudasai'. He's not 100% squeaky clean however. Years previously he delayed the construction of higher seawalls as he didn't think they were necessary. But he always said that water was the main problem and he's certainly been proved right on that.

There's been some progress on housing for evacuees. Government funding seems to have been sorted at last and new housing for 3,700 households is to be built within the prefecture by fiscal 2015. Some initiatives are already underway. Iwaki on the coast where most of the evacuees are, announced that 1,600 dwellings would be available next March and was inundated with applications. Iitate county has put forward plans for a development designed to house 23 young families (80 people) in Iino, Fukushima City. It looks really nice with a community centre and lots of space to play. A bit different from the utilitarian block going up in Hiwada, in the north of Koriyama. Then there's a plan for evacuees from Futaba county evacuated to Saitama, outside Tokyo, to be rehoused en masse in existing blocks of flats in Iwaki. The Reconstruction Agency is also going to set up an advisory committee which will implement lessons from the Kobe Earthquake when rehousing people. So, as usual in this country, it takes an age for anything to happen but once it gets going it's done meticulously.

Energy in the headlines too. A floating wind turbine over 100 meters high was towed up from Tokyo. In August it will be moved to the Naraha coast for tests (including effects on fishing). The wind turbine (in Japanese fusha 風車 windmill) has been named Fukushima Mirai, Fukushima Future, and by fiscal 2014 there will be 3 turbines producing 16,000 KWH of electricity, the world's biggest floating sub-station.

A group of farmers from Tomioka have got organised and, working with Kyushu University, have been experimenting for the past year on different crops which can be used to produce bio-ethanol. They've been working on small areas in Tomioka. They may not be able to grow food but at least they can use their skills in growing for some useful purpose and to earn a living.

Meanwhile there's an election campaign going on. Voters go to the polls on 21 July to vote for members of the Upper House. The PM avoids all mention of nuclear power but presses on with getting nuclear plants back into operation. The LDP in Fukushima however have said they want rid of all nuclear plants in this prefecture. They had to - otherwise they wouldn't get any votes ...  I wonder if Mori Masako. Fukushima MP and Minister in charge of consumer affairs and dealing with the falling birthrate, will get in?
That's all for now.
It's getting hot even up here.

Wednesday 10 July 2013

Appeasing the gods

Today was a special day when even a seasoned old-timer like me felt the magic of being in Japan. A supermarket is to be built on the old factory site which the company vacated nearly two years ago and this morning a ceremony was held to 'placate the gods of the earth' (jichinsai 地鎮祭) and pray for safety during construction.

A striped tent had been erected next to the diggers. One by one we entered, ritually purifying our hands with water. Inside, the ground was covered with finely raked sand and there was Shinto music playing. Bamboo branches formed a frame for the altar which was laden with sake, rice, fruit, vegetables, and even a fish. In front of my seat was a neat cone of sand which three representatives would dig into during the ceremony. But first a loud wail on the part of the presiding Shinto priest resplendent in blue robes, tall black headdress and pointy shoes, to signify that the kami, the spirit of the place, was coming down to be amongst us. (The ceremony finished in the same way as the kami 'ascended'. Hmm. I thought it was the spirit of the place maybe it lives somewhere else ... ) Next there were prayers, unintelligible chanting, but for the name of the supermarket and the name of the construction company sounding out incongruously from time to time. Tiny squares of white paper were scattered like confetti in the four directions. Then the high point: one person from the supermarket, and two people in charge of construction ceremonially, and ever so slightly, broke down the cone of sand with miniature spades and other implements made of wood. Then it was our turn to go to the altar and make our offerings of sasaki branches - two bows, two claps, one bow. And finally a sip of sake for everyone.

I suppose the equivalent in England would be the 'topping out' ceremony. I have to admit I do enjoy things like this and think it's important to mark milestones. And this is a big milestone for us. At last I can say out in the open that local supermarket giant York Benimaru will be building a supermarket on our land. There's a certain sense of satisfaction as the former CEO was my husband's best friend, and gave me a lot of support in the early days. And I think the new development will be good for the area. I was told today they will be looking for 100 new staff. The target date for opening is 29 January next year. 
So it's been a good day. 
All the best. 

The site in Hohacho, Koriyama (east of the station) today

Tuesday 9 July 2013

New NRA Regs.

Today was an important day. The new safety standards for nuclear reactors went into force and, as expected, five electricity boards submitted applications to the NRA (Nuclear Regulation Authority) for inspection of 10 reactors at five nuclear plants. There's an Avaaz petition going round which says 'a decision by the NRA could see reactors turned on in just days!'. That's not true. The electricity companies are applying for their facilities to be inspected - which may take up to six months. Then any additional work has to be put in hand, and finally local authorities have to be consulted. So we're probably looking at the end of the year.

Avaaz wants the ruling LDP to issue a clear statement that local authorities will be able to say no to nuclear power. If only things were so simple. The local authorities don't want to make the decision. They want the government to take responsibility. There was an odd exchange on television the other day. The CEO of Tepco, Mr Hirose visited the Governor of Niigata. It was a stunt, done for the cameras, a face-saving exercise. What they call in Japan sherimonii (ceremony). Hirose appeared as contrite as ever. (Every time someone from Tepco opens their mouth they start with an apology.) Governor Izumida's tone was lightly chiding. He wanted to know why Tepco had announced it was going to apply for inspection of the Kashiwazaki plant without consulting the local authority first (no nemawashi). He also made the valid point that Tepco had built a new filtered venting facility (as required in the new regulations) without consulting the local authority when they are legally bound to do so. This is important as the vent's used to reduce pressure in the reactor in an emergency and if botched can release radioactive materials into the air as happened at Fukushima. Tepco was also accused of putting money before safety. Hirose defended himself well, I thought. He said it was his duty to avoid a deficit for a third year in a row. (It's said that each nuclear reactor back in operation will cut the deficit by 120 billion yen, or 1.2 billion dollars, a year.)

The local authorities are caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. They need the employment and income from the nuclear plants but public opinion is anti-nuclear. So they don't want to be seen to be taking the decision but want the government to take responsibility. And this is the point. The electricity companies' business plans are based on the status quo. Costs are escalating; they need the revenue. The government should be working out how to go about decommissioning old or unsafe reactors and compensate as appropriate. There's an election of the Upper House next week. The LDP is the only party committed to restarting the closed nuclear reactors.

It's got hot and sticky though not too bad here. In fact it's quite chilly as I write late at night with the window open. But the TV news reports 1 dead, 3 unconscious and 1,000 carted off to hospital today due to heatstroke.

Saturday 6 July 2013

Koriyama Cityscape

The demolition of this town continues apace. This is the top end of Station Road (Ekimae-dori) looking towards Koriyama station. Shops have been pulled down and there's a big empty space where a quarter of the main street should be! It's been like this for over a month with no sign yet of any new construction. If you turn right where the blue car is in the above photo and walk past Usui department store towards the multi-storey carpark, you'll see this: 

... three major buildings being pulled down, including the Abe Bldg and an upmarket boutique. 

This is the Abe Bldg. coming down (View Plaza shopping centre and View Hotel behind). Continuing south (to left of above picture) you'll see this space (photo below). The Toho Bank, a handsome 1920s building used to stand here. But at least the bank is going to build a new branch here.

As a friend posted on Facebook the other day, ' I so hate the crunch of a wooden building being torn down. Not a week goes by that there isn't a building being torn down on one of my routes to and from work. The landscape of my city continues to change.'

One can only surmise that people have finally got the grants and insurance payments to go ahead and pull down those buildings - many of them cheap 1960s construction - that didn't stand up to the earthquake. There are more and more empty spaces but there is some rebuilding. Kashiwaya, the local Japanese cake firm, has pulled down its flagship store in the main street but is rebuilding. The restaurant Kakusan (角さん) has just moved into much bigger premises and Marushin (丸新) which moved out of a damaged building near the station has opened a splendid new restaurant further out. (Incidentally, I can thoroughly recommend both these restaurants: upmarket iizakaya.) No encouraging news about a replacement for the old Marui Store near the station. It's being demolished but I hear there are no concrete plans yet. 

The rainy season's started at last. Drizzle and high humidity. There's a new term on the weather forecast, the discomfort index (fuyukai shisu 不快指数) which factors temperature and humidity. Over 85 is unbearable. I'll let you know how we get on though generally it's not too bad up here.
All the best

Tuesday 2 July 2013

Ricefield Art and Miyazawa Kenji

Hi there,
On Sunday afternoon I persuaded a friend to go with me to my favourite cafe near the lake in Miharu. On the way we stumbled on some 'ricefield art' (tanbo aato) which I was later told had been done by a group of local farmers. Scaffolding and stairs had been provided so we climbed up to take a look. The picture above is of a snake (this being the year of the snake) with a lucky drum on its back, and the one below is of a tree. I thought at first it was a pine but I think it's supposed to be the famous weeping cherry, Takizakura. Variegated rice seedlings  - red, black, yellow and white - are planted in among the green. (It reminded me a bit of the floral clocks in Victorian parks in England.) Anyway, it's a good show which will continue to delight until the rice is harvested in October. (Route 54 between Koriyama and Miharu)

So on to Aotsuki (Blue Moon) Cafe where on the last Sunday of every month the proprietor performs a reading from the works of Miyazawa Kenji, poet and author of children's stories. Kenji lived from 1896 to 1933 and was a teacher and social reformer in Iwate. His most famous story is Night on the Galactic Railroad (Ginga Tetsudo no Yoru). It's a wonderfully imaginative tale of people on a train to the afterlife - even victims of the Titanic on board. It's been made into an anime film - but with some artistic licence all the characters are cats... His most famous poem is Ame ni mo Makezu (Strong in the Rain) which was often quoted at the time of the disaster as it describes the resilience of people in the north.

We heard the first two chapters of Kenji's last work Biography of Gusukobudori. The reading was spirited and the characters came to life - the ingenuous young children, the wicked taskmaster. But Kenji's work is never cheerful. This story is set in the Great Tohoku Famine of 1906. First the father and then the mother leave the house (Lawrence Oates style), telling the two children to make the remaining food last. Later a man comes to the house and makes off with the girl. A capitalist who buys the property sets the boy Budori to work to earn his keep. Then a nearby volcano erupts, the factory closes, and the boy sets out on a new adventure. I was amazed that there was such poverty in Japan in the 20th century. It's not that long ago. It makes you realise how far Japan has come in a hundred years. Kenji's self sacrificing values I find a bit much but from the discussion afterwards there's no doubt that his work resonates with people here.
It was a very pleasant way to spend a Sunday afternoon (her coffee and cakes are delicious) and I'd like to go again.
Still no rain in what's supposed to be the 'rainy season'.