Tuesday 25 February 2014

Trouble Again

A week since the Big Snow. We've been treated to the unusual sight of trucks taking the snow away and there are diggers knawing at side roads and car parks in an attempt to remove the ice. Even with temperatures above zero this past week, Koriyama is a windy city and the snow has stayed frozen. But today we had rain. That's novel: the first rain in four months. So maybe the ice will start to melt.

Recently I said all was quiet at Fukushima Daiichi but there's been a fresh incident. Last Wednesday (19 Feb.) contaminated water was mistakenly diverted to a storage tank which overflowed, leaking 100 tons of contaminated water. An alarm had rung 9 hours previously but was ignored. But there was worse to come. It seems that valves had mistakenly been left open and, after the accident, mysteriously closed. Tepco has interviewed over 100 staff but not yet got to the bottom of the matter. 

I know they're short of staff and the staff are tired but these kind of mistakes would seem to hint at basic problems in the overall management of Fukushima Daiichi. And it's particularly worrying as proposals to re-open Japan's closed reactors are currently under consideration and 10 reactors at 6 plants could be opening in the next few months. 

On a different note, Azby Brown of Safecast, the independent organisation which measures radiation worldwide, has been to Geneva to talk to the IAEA. Great job, guys. Very informative post here:
Azby in Geneva

Bye for now

Monday 17 February 2014

Interim Storage

Photo from TV programme 'Interim Storage Facilities Go Off Course'
(TV Asahi, 11 February 2014)
There’s been some progress recently on the issue of the ‘interim storage facilities’ which will take the contaminated soil currently piled up at schools, parks and gardens all over the prefecture and store it for 30 years. ‘Progress’ might not be the right word. A programme shown on TV Asahi on 11 February had the title ‘Interim Storage Facilities Go Off Course’ (Meiso suru Chukan Chozo Shisetsu 迷走する中間貯蔵施設).

We first heard about this plan in August 2011 from the then Prime Minister, Naoto Kan. This cumbersome new phrase has become part of the vernacular, shortened to ‘interim storage’ (chukan chozo) and even ‘interim‘ (chukan). Everyone knows what it means, everyone knows they’re key to getting back to normal - but no one of course wants one in their back yard. The facilities will take an estimated 35 million tons of soil, foliage etc. from decontamination work in Fukushima prefecture. (The more toxic waste from the reactors themselves, from decommissioning, will be stored at the plant.)  

Last year the Environment Ministry proposed sites in three towns and carried out geological tests. The sites are in: Okuma and Futaba next to Fukushima Daiichi in the exclusion zone, and Naraha further south near Fukushima Daini where radiation levels are relatively low. 
Map of towns which will host proposed storage sites:
 Futaba and Okuma in the north around Fukushima Daiichi
and Naraha in the south near Fukushima Daini
From the start it seemed cruel to have a storage facility in Naraha just when it was announced that preparations were to be started to lift the ban and people were beginning to think about returning. A new mayor was elected on the basis of his opposition but he’s had to backtrack. In December the Environment Minister announced that a total of 19 of land in the three towns would be purchased (nationalised) for the facilities. In January the Mayor of Naraha told the governor that they would only accept low level waste, nothing over 100,000 bq/kg. Governor Sato seems to have done a deal which he is trying to negotiate with central government. Okuma and Futaba will take the waste over 100,000 bq/kg but there is to be no increase in the size of the sites there. In order to reduce the volume, wood trimmings etc. with levels of 8,000 to 100,000 bq/kg. would be incinerated and the ash stored in Naraha. It’s a tortuous process, all about negotiating conditions.
The 'temporary sites' (kariokiba) in use now
Plan for the 'interim storage facility in Naraha.
Bottom right is Fukushima Daini nuclear plant.
The other point of course is that these sites are supposed to be ‘interim’ - with a life of 30 years. After which time the stuff is supposed to be moved elsewhere. The Environment Minister has said he will try and get this made into law but who knows what will happen in 30 years time? The local people are right to be sceptical.

The government hopes to have the first trucks arriving in January next year. There's a lot of negotiating to do before that can happen.
Photos from TV programme, 'Interim Storage Facilities Go off Course' (Meiso suru Chukan Chozo Shisetsu 迷走する中間貯蔵施設TV Asahi, 11 Feb. 2014 

Sunday 16 February 2014


Outside the station yesterday
Extreme weather in the UK, in the US and here in Japan. Another weekend of record-breaking snow, not just here but in Tokyo and Osaka too. Yesterday there was a blizzard even here in the city of Koriyama with the snow sweeping horizontal in the wind. The ice cut into your face and it was hard to stay upright. I've never experienced anything like it. I was supposed to go to Aizu but all the trains were cancelled and the expressways closed.

This Sunday morning there is a foot of snow but temperatures are above zero (for the present) and the snow is melting. I am so glad I live in an apartment. Friends have been clearing the heavy snow from their houses and workplaces and are exhausted.

Yesterday the TV screen was framed with information banners as it was after the disaster three years ago but this time entitled 'The Big Snow' (ooyuki 大雪). Along with traffic information was Tepco's announcement that it was calling off most outside work at Fukushima Daiichi for the day. Routine work these days includes setting up more storage tanks for contaminated water, doing test runs for the ALPS (Advanced Liquid Processing System) which when it gets going again will remove almost all nuclides from the stored water, building a wall along the sea side of the plant, and removing the fuel assemblies from Unit 4. In the past Tepco has made blunders which hit the headlines only to be followed by PR exercises referred to cynically here as the 'Fukushima Daiichi theatre' (gekijoo). But things have been pretty quiet recently.

Amongst the snow and wind people have been cheered by the exquisite performance in the short programme of 19 year old skater Hanyu Yuzuru who won a gold and set an Olympic record. He comes from Sendai and his house was destroyed in the earthquake so it's a real boost for people in the north of Japan.
Monday: Still bad today. Schools closed. Only a few buses running. No bread or bento in the shops.

And this morning ...

Monday 10 February 2014

Elections in the Snow

It started snowing on Friday night and didn't stop until Sunday morning. There's about 6 inches in Koriyama and about the same in Tokyo - very unusual, the heaviest snowfall in 45 years. Six thousand people were stranded at Narita airport overnight on Saturday. 

In the driving snow the Democratic Party of Japan (Minshuto 民主党)still smarting from their defeat in the polls last year held its party conference in Koriyama. With two ex-prime ministers in attendance, the town was crawling with plain clothes police all weekend. The party has proclaimed it will be a viable opposition and as a sop to the locals here is proposing that land where the interim storage facilities for radioactive waste are to be built, should not be nationalised. If the local authorities and landowners don't remain in charge, runs the argument, the stuff will remain there permanently.

Incidentally, that long phrase 'interim storage facilities for radioactive waste' (and by interim, they mean for the next 30 years) is nowadays referred to here simply as 'interim storage' (chukan chozo 中間貯蔵). All this new vocabulary ...

The Tokyo electorate braved the snow on Sunday (well a third of them did) (correction: later the turnout was updated to 46%) and voted in as their Mayor former health minister Masuzoe and not former PM Hosokawa who was calling for an immediate end to nuclear power. He came in third. To give him his due Masuzoe, reflecting 60% of Japanese public opinion, does say he wants to get out of nuclear over the long term - but gradually. The worry of course is that PM Abe will take Hosokawa's defeat as approval for re-opening the idle reactors.

It seems that issues such as the economy, welfare and disaster prevention are uppermost in people's minds. Masuzoe has pledged to cut waiting lists for nurseries and for old people's homes, and to start immediately on anti-disaster work (putting electric cables underground, repairing raised expressways and dealing with high fire risk areas) He's also promised the best Olympics ever in 2020. I guess he's a safe pair of hands. He needs to be. Tokyo commands a budget the size of Sweden and there's a lot to do.
Bye from a snowy Koriyama

Sunday 2 February 2014

From Factory to Supermarket

Opening of new Hohacho store of York Benimaru, Saturday 1 February 2014 
Those of you who have been following this blog from the beginning will know that in the midst of the disaster we were negotiating the sale of the packaging factory I inherited from my Japanese husband 25 years ago, with Rengo the industry leader in Japan. The sale went through and in September 2011 the factory moved to another site in Koriyama. That left us with the old factory site, just 10 minutes walk from the east side of Koriyama station. We have been in talks with York Benimaru, a supermarket chain based in Koriyama, part of the Ito Yokado group, and I'm happy to report that the new Hohacho supermarket opened yesterday.

I took part in the ribbon cutting ceremony (teepu katto, in Japanese!) yesterday morning. There were queues at the doors and later the place was packed with shoppers taking advantage of cut price offers. I happened to meet a couple of people who used to work in the factory and they seemed pleased with the reincarnation. For two years the site has been empty and it's good to see the place full of life and light again.

The boss of York Benimaru seemed pleased with his new shop. And he reminisced about old times. There is a pleasing symmetry in all this. The current CEO is third of four brothers, all involved in the business. His older brother was my husband's closest friend and a director of our company until he died about ten years ago. I wasn't able to sort the company out in Zenjiro's lifetime. But now it's done - with the help of his younger brother. The old adage about business in Japan being based on long term relationships has proved right in this case. There were some difficulties in the development of this site but relationships going back 30 years certainly helped us reach this satisfactory conclusion. 

The boss also mentioned, by the way, that we were lucky with the timing. There's a real shortage of labour in the construction industry in Japan at the moment. The ratio of jobs to job seekers is 3 to 1. He said he's had to delay the opening of other stores later this year.

So for me, another major project finished. On to the next chapter ....