Friday 29 November 2013

New Secrecy Bill

Hi folks
There's a lot of controversy in Japan at the moment about new legislation which will impose a 10 year prison sentence on those who leak 'special secrets' concerning diplomacy, defence, counterterrorism or espionage. It's designed so Japan can share sensitive information with other countries but it was rushed through the Lower House on Tuesday and the Upper House on Thursday and people feel there hasn't been enough discussion. It's contentious because the definition of a 'special secret' (tokutei himitsu 特定秘密) is vague and there is as yet no independent checking body or system of appeal - the Prime Minister, of all people, is to decide what constitutes a 'special secret'. Information was to be declassified after 30 years (though extendable) but after discussions with the Restoration Party (Ishin no kai) that got changed to 60 years (with no extensions). 

The bill has drawn widespread protest from the press, citizens' groups, and the public at large. But for some reason there is a Fukushima connection that I can't quite fathom. The day before the bill was presented to the Lower House, last Monday 25 November, the lower house special committee held a public hearing in Fukushima city, the only such hearing in the whole country. Seven prominent people were asked to give their views. But what was the point when the bill went before the house and was passed the very next day? All seven people voiced concern because they are afraid information relating to the nuclear disaster could become classified. Mr Baba, Mayor of Namie in the exclusion zone, was outspoken. Immediately after the earthquake, he said, police and others appeared dressed in what he at the time thought were 'spacesuits'. The residents hadn't been told of any danger. Later they were told to evacuate but were given no information. People ended up travelling under the plume. The Japanese government did not disclose the SPEEDI data until May although other countries had made it public. No wonder he doesn't trust the government. He said on TV that if the storage dumps for nuclear waste were deemed a terrorist target, they could come under the new law. Obviously people here are very keen on preserving their 'right to know' about progress in decommissioning at Fukushima Daiichi. There are worries that workers at the plant won't be able to speak out or that evidence in court cases to do with nuclear plants won't be put forward because it's secret.

And why was Mori Masako, local MP, put in charge of this bill? She is indeed a lawyer, but an expert in consumer rights, and she currently serves as Minister in charge of the declining birth rate, consumer affairs, food safety and gender equality. Seems odd.
All the best

Monday 18 November 2013

Local Elections

Yesterday, Sunday, saw the election for Mayor of Fukushma City. I hadn't really been following it. Fukushima is 25 miles north of Koriyama and I just presumed that the incumbent would be re-elected. But no, he was ousted and Kaoru Kobayashi won by a landslide. Until the summer he was director of the Tohoku regional office of the Environment Ministry, the ministry in charge of decontamination. And this seems to be the issue closest to voters' hearts. Over half said they voted for him because of issues related to the accident, the main one being decontamination. 90,000 houses are to be decontaminated in the city but work has been completed on only 23%. It's taking too long. Moreover, Kobayashi pledged to work personally to get more temporary storage facilities for the radioactive rubbish up and running in the city. Not only has there been no progress on the so-called 'Interim Storage Facilities' to be set up by the government in the exclusion zone to store the prefecture's contaminated soil and rubble for the next 30 years, but closer to home, at the municipal level, there aren't enough dumps either. It's all very well having your gutters cleaned and topsoil removed but no one wants that stuff buried in their own garden. The good people of Fukushima city are hoping, I guess, that Mr Kobayashi has the energy, experience and clout to sort this problem.

Come to think of it, the three largest cities in Fukushima prefecture have all had elections this year - Koriyama, Fukushima and Iwaki - and in all three cities the incumbents have lost. You can't help thinking people are fed up with the government taking so long to get the recovery going and are taking it out on local candidates. The governor of Fukushima prefecture comes up for election next autumn. He must be feeling nervous.

Looking at Mr Kobayashi's resume, he did an MA at Sussex University in England. Not many people up here speak English. I wonder what his English is like now?
24 November 2013  Two more elections today, two more incumbents toppled - in Nihonmatsu and Hirono. This is getting beyond coincidence.

Sunday 17 November 2013

U-turn on Repatriation

Hi folks
The mountains surrounding Koriyama are dusted with white after the first snowfall earlier in the week. Minowa ski resort on Mount Bandai has opened for the season - though I think they've had the snow machines on full blast.

In the summer the PM pledged to speed up the recovery and the ruling parties' working group has just produced its recommendations. The government's done a U-turn on policy to repatriate the 140,000 evacuees. Up to now, plans were based on the principle that everyone would be re-housed in 'new communities' and at some stage everyone would return to where they lived before the disaster. Now they're saying people must be told if and when they'll be able to go back and given support if they choose to live elsewhere. At long last the government seems to be looking at things realistically, from the residents' perspective, but it has taken so long.  

Regular surveys have shown that a growing number of people don't want to go back. The continuing reports of the troubles at Fukushima Daiichi haven't helped. And decontamination is proving trickier and far more expensive than first thought. 

Local leaders broadly welcome the report but the devil is in the detail, and no details have been announced yet. Not to put too fine a point on it: a lot depends on the compensation package. The current system doesn't provide enough compensation to buy a house elsewhere. This will change. Local leaders warn that those who decide to go back shouldn't lose out.

I still don't really understand what's going to happen. At Chernobyl the 30 km exclusion zone imposed at the time of the accident is still in force although there are some 'stubborn oldies' who live within the zone but receive proper support. I know the damage here was nothing like as bad and the working party say there is no change in the long term aim -  to have people return eventually. Does that mean people will be able to choose, after a certain period, to go back? What a difficult decision. We wait and see. Details have been promised by the end of the year. 

A while back I told you about the delay in building new housing for evacuees due to escalating prices for construction. When Home's not so Sweet  Well, with much fanfare, there was a ceremony today to mark the start of construction of a block of 40 apartments in Koriyama, the first to be built. It will be completed in October next year. More houses for 3,700 families are planned.
Bye for now

Monday 11 November 2013

Start of Decommissioning

Later this month work will start on removing the fuel assemblies in Reactor 4 at Fukushima Daiichi. The building was badly damaged in the hydrogen explosion and you may remember the scare at one time about nuclear fallout if the roof caved in. Well, all the debris has been removed and a brand new building constructed above and alongside the unit. 

There are 1,331 spent fuel assemblies and 202 unused ones being kept cool in a pool above the reactor. The plan is to lift each one out by crane, insert into a special container and transport to a different storage pool 100 metres away. This work, which marks the beginning of decommissioning proper, will take until the end of next year.

According to the local paper (Fukushima Minpo 10 November 2013), radiation on the 5th Floor is  0.1 - 0.13 mSv/hour. 36 people will work in 6 groups with each group working about two hours a day. The maximum exposure allowed for each worker is 0.8 mSv per day. That sounds a lot to me - most people don't want more than 1 mSv in a year! I hope they're well protected.

The two biggest problems in decommissioning Fukushima Daiichi will be removing the melted fuel in reactors 1 to 3, and ensuring there are enough skilled people over the next 30 to 40 years to do the work. Tepco has just announced a raft of measures to improve working conditions. The current 10,000 yen allowance per day (on top of normal pay) is to be doubled to 20,000 yen (200 US$, 126 GBP) per day. Next, the area where full-face masks don't have to be worn is to be increased to two thirds of the site as a result of decontamination. The masks are cumbersome - workers can't communicate with each other easily - and this may have contributed to work errors in the past. New facilities - an 8-storey rest house for 1,200 workers and a cafeteria to provide 3,000 meals  - are also to be built on site. But they won't be ready for over a year. In the meantime, conditions are pretty cramped.

The local evening news showed Bobby Charlton (former football star who helped England win the World Cup in 1966) visiting J-village, which used to be the national youth soccer training centre. He said what an immaculate pitch it used to be and was obviously shocked to see it covered in pre-fabs for the workers at Fukushima Daiichi. He pledged British help in reinstating it.

The national news was full of pictures of the typhoon and tsunami-like flooding in the Philippines. My heart goes out to those people.

Saturday 9 November 2013

So now 20 mSv/year is OK!

It's just been announced that the Nuclear Regulation Authority is proposing that up to 20 mSv/year of additional air-borne radiation poses no risk to health. This will form part of government guidelines for repatriation of evacuees to be announced at the end of the year. Well, well, well! This has been such a touchy subject. After the accident people were evacuated from areas over 20 mSv/year. The ICRP said at the time that the range in such an emergency situation was between 1 and 20 mSv. But there was an outcry when the government first announced a level of 20 mSv - it seemed too close to evacuation levels. What was safe? Everyone was confused. The government's knee-jerk reaction was to lower the 'safe' level to 1 mSv - that became the target for decontamination, and people here came to believe that exposure over 1 mSv/year was not safe. There were even some ugly scenes when experts arguing for less strict standards were heckled by residents. 

The meter in my local park today showing 0.281 μSv/hour. Falling very gradually
but still not down to the magic figure of 0.23 μSv/hour
Here in Koriyama, 1 mSv/year is the target for decontamination work currently underway. By a strange logic this is worked out to 0.23 μSv (microsieverts)/hour. But as I have said many times, the equation is based on being outdoors for 8 hours of the day and spending the other 16 hours in a house constructed of wood. This is unrealistic for most people. When I carried a dosimeter for a month in June my estimated accumulated additional exposure came to only 0.3 mSv/year - way below 1 mSv. There are still places in Koriyama registering 0.5 or 0.6 μSv/hour but for most people this would still come to under 1 mSv/year. So I'm convinced Koriyama is safe.

But what of the evacuated areas? Pretty soon those in the 'hard to return areas' of 50 mSv/year are going to be told they can't go back. In the surrounding areas (the 'restricted residence areas' of 20 - 50 mSv, and the 'preparation for the lifting of the ban areas' up to 20 mSv/year) it's become evident that levels can't be reduced to 1 mSv/year. Many evacuees are understandably reluctant to return as they don't think levels of say 5 mSv/year are safe - 1 mSv has become the yardstick in the popular perception. Today's news is a move in the right direction but people will need convincing. The governor of Fukushima has long campaigned for the government to provide scientific evidence for the 1 mSv level. This time round the government's going to have to do a better job explaining the new standards to the public.
Measuring radiation is such a tricky and emotive subject.
More about this next time.

Thursday 7 November 2013

Autumn in Fukushima

All this year it's seemed like bad weather every weekend and then brilliant sunshine once back to work. This last weekend was no different, a long weekend (Culture Day), when I went with friends to admire the autumn colours in the Aizu area, west of Koriyama. Despite the rain, it was magnificent. Hope you don't mind me showing you my holiday pics.

One of the Five Coloured Ponds (Goshikinuma) in Ura Bandai. Too misty to see Mt. Bandai.

Then on a train from Kitakata to Tsugawa in Niigata prefecture along the valley of  the Aga River

Met a steam train coming the other way

Then back by car. This river changes its name three times. It's the Tadami River from the source to Aizu, the Aga River from Aizu to the Fukushima border, then the Agano River in Niigata prefecture.

Stumbled on an outdoor art exhibition

(By the way, there was an electric fence round this field - to keep the monkeys out!)

Ensoji Temple in Yanaizu.
Legend has it that magical oxen helped build the temple, giving rise to
those red toy cows with bobbing heads (akabeko) you see everywhere

If you take a path up the hill to the right of the temple you come across this lovely autumn scene.

Then on to my favourite place, Nagatoko near Kitakata. Originally built in 1089 it's the oldest building in north east Japan. Open to the elements, with the thatch roof held up by 44 thick pillars, it was used for ceremonial shrine dances in the Heian period.

The younger gingko tree to the right of the shrine  had turned yellow but  curiously not this 800 year old tree. I'll have to come back later to get the classic shot of Nagatoko covered in yellow leaves.

Gingko leaves and nuts