Saturday 25 January 2014

Peace of Mind for Parents

Hi folks
There's no snow in Koriyama at the moment though it's cold. Very cold. The upside is that on fine days, like yesterday, we can enjoy wonderful views of the snow-clad mountains to the west against clear blue skies.

Koriyama city has just published figures of a survey of over 9,000 pre-school children who carried dosimeters for 70 days from September to November last year. The average additional exposure (i.e. in addition to natural radiation) works out at 0.44 of a millisievert per year, way below the 'safe' target of 1 mSv/year. When they did the same survey last year the average was 0.52, so levels are definitely going down. But as I've said many times, it's nothing to worry about. You get the same amount of radiation in Hong Kong (0.23 μSv/hr Safecast) and with its open spaces, and no pollution from China, Koriyama must be a healthier place to live.

The city's doing these surveys because it wants people to come back. 150,000 people have been displaced due to the nuclear accident, of these 48,900 have moved to other parts of Japan (or abroad). That's a lot of people. (The figure peaked at 62,000 in March 2012 but fell below 50,000 for the first time last October.) Of these, about half are estimated to be 'voluntary evacuees', mainly mothers and children. I personally know four families in this situation. One friend and her young child moved to Hokkaido after the disaster but came back last summer. Another friend's teenage daughters went on to high school in Kyoto and won't be coming back. Two more with primary school age children are still living in Tokyo, wondering whether to come back when their free rent runs out in March next year. 

At the dentists this morning I noticed a poster. If parents take their children's milk teeth to their local dentist, they will be sent to Tohoku University's Dental Research Centre in Sendai and analysed for radioactive substances (there's been some scare-mongering on the internet about Strontium 90 getting into bones). Parents will get the results. The lengths people in every walk of life go to to get data is impressive. Fukushima children are becoming the most studied children in the world!
I found details of the project here: Fukushima Minpo article (in Japanese)
That's all for now. Bye.

Monday 20 January 2014

New Year Plans

The new year is a time for resolutions and plans for the future. But Toden's new business plan has not got down well here. Buoyed by the current government's support for nuclear power, Toden (sorry, Tepco, in English - Tokyo Electric Power Company) plans to get the Kashiwazaki nuclear plant on the Japan Sea coast in Niigata  working again by July which will put the company back in profit by March next year. If the plant opens, they will even reduce electricity bills. If it doesn't open, bills will go up. That's the deal. Take it or leave it. People here are angry. They feel safety's not priority. 

There are seven reactors at Kashiwazaki. Three of them (reactors 2, 3 and 4) have been closed since the Chuetsu earthquake in 2007 when there was a fire. The governor of Niigata, Mr Izumida, is going to take some persuading, and now with anti-nuclear candidates standing in the Tokyo Mayor election things are looking complicated.

Other parts of Toden's plan include a government promise to increase its interest-free lending from 5 trillion to 9 trillion yen, and pay for interim storage facilities (1.1 trillion yen). 2.5 trillion yen's worth of decontamination costs are to be funded from the sale of Tepco shares (hmm ... wonder who's going to buy those?) and there are cost-cutting measures.

On the other hand you have to admire the new plan put forward by the town of Okuma. This administrative district spreads from east to west in a thin strip with Fukushima Daiichi on the coast at its north-eastern tip. Before the disaster there were 11,500 inhabitants, all now evacuated. From its offices in Aizu, the town's planners envisage repatriating the area in four stages starting from the east. So the infrastructure - roads, railways, utilities - will be repaired, new shopping and medical centres built, in five year chunks, with the area next to Fukushima Daiichi completed in 20 years time, by 2033. Work is to start next year on trying to attract inward investment in decommissioning technology, robotics and factory farming. But the plan is not without its problems, 96% of the population used to live near the coast where radiation levels are high and the effectiveness of decontamination as yet unknown, and there's also a plan to build storage facilities for radioactive waste. Nonetheless, pamphlets describing the plan have been distributed to residents. I wish them luck!

Saturday 11 January 2014

Back to work

The holiday's over and it's back to work. To tell you the truth, I've been in England spending the holidays with my family. The weather was awful: rain, more rain, and hail. And dark too. No wonder Europe has Christmas, a festival of light, to brighten up the winter. When I come back to Japan I'm always struck by the strong light as I get off the plane. And back in Koriyama, the cold (lows of minus 5) is mitigated by the brilliant sunshine, and views of the surrounding snow-covered mountains. 

There was hardly any mention of Japan on mainstream UK news. Prime Minister Abe's visit to Yasukuni Shrine (controversial - war criminals are interred there) hit the headlines one day and another day there were pictures of a Japanese whaling ship's catch courtesy of Sea Shepherd, the Australian anti-whaling activists. But these were the only two bits of news I noticed, neither showing Japan in a good light. I also watched a documentary of amateur video footage of the tsunami. But that was it. At least, all I managed to see.

So I needed to catch up when I got back. Today is the 11th of the month and it's a monthly anniversary (tsuki meinichi 月命日) that's still marked with prayers and search parties two years and ten months after the disaster. The TV and newspapers do special features. Not that much has changed. The Environment Agency has announced delays of three years in the clean up of the exclusion zone. Okuma, Kawauchi and Naraha will be finished by March this year but the rest, including Iidate and Tomioka will not be finished until March 2017. There are no plans for Futaba which I hear is in a bad state. Other figures show air-borne radiation down 50% as a result of decontamination work in Namie and Futaba in the exclusion zone but levels remain high at 3 to 6 microsieverts/hour so no one will be going back soon. You can read these features (in Japanese) here:
Fukushima Minpo 11 Jan2014
Also included in the paper's special is the full text of the government's plan to speed up the recovery - two broadsheet pages of fine print. The detail we get from this local paper is quite remarkable. And I'm sure it's read. People's lives here are affected and they really do follow the news.

Fascinating at the moment is the activity surrounding elections next month for Mayor of Tokyo. The incumbent, Inose, had to step down when it emerged that he had taken a 'loan' from a scandal-tainted hospital group. Yesterday, Hosokawa, who was Prime Minister of Japan for six months in 1993, announced that he intends to stand. And it seems he has the backing of Koizumi, Prime Minister from 2001 to 2006. For the past six months Koizumi has been very publicly advocating a zero nuclear policy. He wants all Japan's nuclear plants closed down for good, forthwith. You will recall that in 2011 the then Prime Minister Noda called for a zero policy and pledged to phase out nuclear power by 2030. 'No more nuclear power!` (datsu genpatsu 脱原発) became the slogan, a feeling supported by most people in Japan. In contrast the present government wants to keep nuclear power plants running. The draft of the basic energy plan announced last month does promise to reduce Japan's reliance on nuclear power and doesn't call for building new ones so in a way it follows the popular line. The question is one of timing. Hosokawa and Koizumi want action now and are opposed to the re-opening of the nuclear plants which could start in the next few months. So you could have the highly unusual scene of two former Prime Ministers pitted against Prime Minister Abe. Watch this space.
Bye for now, from a cold and icy Koriyama.