Saturday, December 31, 2011

Nuclear crisis over, Japanese not happy about it.

Nearly two weeks ago, on the 16th of December, the Japanese government and Tokyo Electric Power Company announced that cold shutdown had been achieved for all three troubled reactors at the troubled Fukushima nuclear power plant.

Cold shutdown is a technical term referring to a situation where the core temperature of the reactor is less than 100 degrees Celsius, below the boiling point of water; there is no possibility of recriticality; and radiation being emitted from the plant is less than 1 millisievert a year.  These conditions have been achieved at Fukushima.  The plant is now officially in a stable condition.

Predictably enough, the achievement of cold shutdown at Fukushima has not inspired much celebration by the public and by the media.  Nor have reports on 'the crisis in Fukushima' dried up.  On the contrary, there continue to be many dramatic reports of decontamination problems, lingering hotspots, and the difficulties of 'unfortunate families' who cannot let their children out to play in the snow in Fukushima.  And the anti-nuclear press, in Japan and overseas, seems to have taken the cold shutdown as a personal affront, seemingly offended at the assertion that any progress can be made on such a 'disaster'.

Consider the editorial of the Mainichi Daily News this week.  It is titled Gov't starring in its own show to bring nuclear crisis 'under control.' While it is grudgingly admitted that the conditions for cold shutdown have been fulfilled, the editorial claims that TEPCO has changed these conditions according to whim. Yet this cannot be the case, because the concept of 'cold shutdown' is a technical one that predates the Fukushima accident.  For example, see the definition as provided by Wikipedia.  The article also desperately asserts that the announcement is inappropriate because the temperature gauges in the reactor vessels have an error margin of up to 20 degrees; yet according to the Japan Times the temperatures in the three reactors are 38.9, 67.5, and 57.4 degrees, well below 100 degrees.  The truth is that the announcement is in fact very conservative; all three reactors have almost certainly been stable, with declining temperatures, for weeks or even months.

One paragraph of the editorial is worth quoting:

The latest announcement that the goals of the road map have been achieved is merely the result of officials lowering their own hurdles. It reminds me of the time during World War II when the Imperial Japanese Army headquarters called the Japanese army's retreat a "shift in position."

One might be tempted to suggest that the hyperbole of such an assertion might 'live in infamy'.  That the editorial of a major Japanese newspaper is so desperate to keep alive an imagined nuclear crisis that they compare it to Japan's hopeless fight in the Second World War is very informative.  It tells us how threatened some people are by its resolution.

As more evidence of public unwillingness to accept the inevitable, a public poll by found that 78% of their readers did not agree with the government's decision to declare cold shutdown at Fukushima.  According to Michio Furukawa, the mayor of Kawamata in Fukushima prefecture, "The crops in Fukushima are still contaminated.  No progress has been in reducing the uncertainty felt by the residents."

Yes crops in Fukushima are contaminated.  By microsopic traces of radiation that, according to empircal scientific research, cannot possibly affect human health.  I wonder, however, if Mr Furukawa would care to speculate on pesticide levels in Fukushima crops, and on crops all over Japan. 

As for the uncertainty faced by residents, it is not the job of TEPCO's engineers to address people's feelings.  If the public is determined to continue to believe in phantom dangers, well, unfortunately, there is no cold shutdown for that.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

New Radiation Safety Levels

The Japanese government has announced new radiation exposure and ingestion limits that will become law by next Spring.

The current level for food radiation caesium exposure, currently set at 500 becquerels per kilogram, will be lowered to 100.  The limit for milk will be brought down from 200 becquerels per liter to 50, and for drinking water the new limit will be just 10 becquerels per liter, down from 200.

The government claims that the new limits are in line with international guidelines, and that the strictness of the new rules is to ensure a margin of safety.

However these claims are only partly correct.  Yes, the World Health Organization suggests a limit of 10 becquerels for water, but notes that the limit is extremely conservative, and not meant for 'nuclear emergencies', but considered over a lifetime.  If an infant were to drink a liter of water containing 10 becquerels of radiation, the infant would receive 0.00024 millisieverts of exposure, worlds away from the level of 100 millisieverts a year which has an actual measurable risk.

And in regard to caesium radionucleotides in food, the new limit for food is 10 times as strict as that recommended by the WHO; and the American FDA will not intervene until 12 times the limit.

The government panel that decided the new safety measures knows very well that public health is not affected one way or the other by these guidelines.  The new levels are not really about safety; the old levels were already extremely safe, even needlessly conservative.  The new measures are really a misguided attempt by the government to regain public trust by arbitrarily lowering radiation standards, reassuring the radiation-fearful public that everything really is 'okay'.

Adding difficulty to misjudgement, the new standards will create a huge headache for laboratories and other affected agencies, because new highly sensitive equipment will be needed.  Indeed there is some doubt over whether substantial amounts of food, water or milk can be tested at all, logistically speaking.

But it's the hypocrisy of the effort that maddens me.  Inevitably some agricultural products will fall foul of the new limits, resulting in rising levels of public fear and unnecessary food wastage.  Meanwhile, these low levels of radiactivity are dwarfed by the carcinogens and pollutants regularly introduced into the environment by other sources and other industries.  See here for an example of FDA limits being exceeded by 1000 times in an oil spill and barely being newsworthy, let alone scaring an entire nation.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Was the Fukushima response a failure?

A 507-page report on the Japanese government and TEPCO's response to the accident at Fukushima was released yesterday.  The report took months to prepare and included the interviews of 400 people.  It found that various mistakes were made both before and after the accident. 

Before the tsunami, TEPCO was found not to have considered the possibility of a tsunami nine metres or higher, and didn't take precautions such as building a higher sea wall or preparing for the possibility that cooling systems would be flooded.  And after the tsunami, a number of other miscalculations or errors were made.  These include breakdowns in communication between officials and on-site workers, switching off the wrong cooling system at reactor number 3, and waiting longer than necessary to start emergency cooling at reactor number 1, mistakenly believing an alternative system was still operational.  On the other hand, the report indicates that it is unclear to what extent these mishaps contributed to the partial or full meltdowns that occurred.

The government was also found to have reacted imperfectly.  Communication among officials at the prime minister's office and the ministries was insufficient.  Specifically, a more accurate estimate of radiation exposure was available, in some forgotten office, that the one the prime minister had immediate access to.  Without the more accurate estimates, the government decided on an evacuation zone of a simple 20 km radius from the plant.  This resulted, for example, in instances of people evacuating to areas which had higher radiation than the places they evacuated from.

All of these criticisms of the response to the nuclear accident are valid.  And there are others as well.  But a little perspective is in order.  On March 11, Japan was hit by major disasters.  An unprecedented tsunami killed 20,000 people.  Mistakes were made.  But I feel that it must be pointed out that in any situation of such magnitude, mistakes are inevitable.  No system is perfect, let alone the Japanese government or bureacratic power companies.  To be completely honest, I am in awe of the government's response, and considering the circumstances it is difficult to imagine anything that would have been more effective.  I challenge the Australian or American governments to respond half so well.  Does anybody remember Katrina? 

I clearly recall the first few days after March 11: 24 hour English news coverage, daily updates by the prime minister.  One had the feeling of a system struggling, being tested certainly.  But also responding to the best of its ability.  The more I think about it, the more awe I feel.  Hundreds of thousands of people evacuated, housed and fed for months.  Without a single radiation-caused death or injury.  Massive amounts of aid pouring in.  Distribution systems stretched to the limit.  Hundreds of workers flocking to the crippled plant, working 24 hours a day to ensure its safety.

In the cold light of reason, the government and TEPCO both come out well.  Yes, TEPCO could have anticipated a tsunami greater than 10 meters.  Or 20.  Or 200.  But there are limits to what can be prepared for.  And you can be certain of one thing: it is impossible for a 14-meter sea wall to be built all around Japan.  And if just around nuclear power plants, why not populated areas?  Are they less important?  And as for the mix-up with the radiation exposures, what the newspaper articles based on the report neglect to mention is the scientific fact that nobody outside the plant, no matter where they were, received enough radiation to adversely affect their health.

It is right and proper that a report be made on the response to the Fukushima accident.  It is appropriate that the mistakes that were made are exposed and analysed, so that improvements can be made.  But to label this response a failure, as newspaper reports around the world have done, is very disappointing. 

The report itself makes no dramatic claim.  Indeed the reporting of the panel's findings by different media sources is a lesson in itself, a lesson in how public opinion is manipulated by the media.  Associated press-sourced articles are headlined "Nuclear disaster response failed", whereas the Mainichi Daily news headlines their article with "Fukushima accident shows need to prepare for the unexpected." Inside, the article's contents are virtually identical.

Makes you think.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Kim Jong Il dies, Pork Chop to succeed him

The TV and other forms of media in Japan have been filled since yesterday with news about the death of Kim Jong Il and speculation about what will happen next in North Korea.

Newspapers were driven into a frenzy with extra editions printed.  The nightly news went for an hour instead of half an hour.

The Great Leader was the saviour of mankind who hit six holes-in-one the first time he picked up a golf club.  He could also alter the weather at will.  His fashion sense also influenced the entire world

At least according to North Korean media.  Makes you wonder if someone there has a sense of humour.  Who could write that with a straight face?

North Korea is one of the most bizarre places on Earth.  It is one of my greatest regrets that my dream of living there will probably now not come true.  That's what happens when you marry a Japanese woman I guess.

Media speculation has centred around the succession to Kim Jong Il.  He had three sons.

The oldest, Kim Jong Nam, was caught in 2001 trying to enter Japan on a fake passport in an unsuccessful attempt to go to Tokyo Disneyland.  I am not making this up.  He was deported and the incident apparently raised questions about his leadership abilities.  Makes you wonder.  If the passport had been of slightly higher quality we might now be facing a completely different leader, one who likes Mickey Mouse.

The second, Kim Jong Chul, is said to have a weak character.

The third, Kim Jong 'Pork Chop' Un, has been anointed as leader and will very likely succeed, though for a long time he may be merely a figurehead.  He shares his late father's dress sense and apparent appetite for fried foods.  He was also apparently educated in a prestigious Swiss boarding school.

The late Kim Jong Il with his son Pork Chop on the right.

The Japanese media is also speculating futilely about the abduction issue.  Hopes have been expressed that Pork Chop will address the issue of Japanese nationals who were abducted by North Korea back in the 70s.  The North Koreans returned five such abducted Japanese several years ago, but unfortunately for Japan, the chances that any others are left alive in North Korea approximate the chances that Kim Jong Il will go on a diet soon.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

People's perception of Fukushima

The word 'Fukushima' has entered the English language as a synonym for massive disaster.  The public's perception of the accident has been moulded unconsciously by months of fearful media exposure and this perception bears little resemblance to the rather more bland reality.

An example of this image of catastrophe can be found on top of the current talk page behind the Fukushima wikipedia article.  An editor named Chrisrus wrote:

"Readers want to know...

how many people died as a result of not the earthquake or tsunami, but as a result of the nuclear meltdown radiation per se. If you use the table of contents you can't find this information easily. Just if you hit "casualties" it jumps you to the fact that a couple of workers who were directly right there have died. That can't be all! If we don't or can't know, please say so and explain, and please make it easier to find. I don't need all this information, I just want to know how many people died because of all of these meltdowns, and how many were emergency workers who went right into it to try and fix the problem and how many were citizens who lived downwind or in the surrounding area. We know that the earthquake and tsunami killed tons of people, but as this reads it seems like nuclear meltdowns are only dangerous to you if you're a first responder or some such who jumps right into it with a fire hose or some such. Great heroes, don't get me wrong, but nuclear meltdowns are supposed to kill everyone in the surrounding area pretty quickly and then many many others over the course of time who were farther away and this article leaves one with the impression that if there's an earthquake/tsunami big enough to cause a meltdown, the meltdown is the least of your problems."

This statement is the saddest thing I have read since March 11.  This person came into the wikipedia page expecting to read about thousands of people dead and dying from radiation; and when he couldn't find those numbers he assumed it was an editing problem and went to the talk page to complain.  Yet he writes lucidly; he may be well-educated, possibly an experienced wikipedia editor.  The tragedy is not that his pre-conceived ideas of the accident were so different from the reality; the tragedy is how widespread these ideas probably are.

Some short answers to his pleas:

"I just want to know how many people died because of all these meltdowns."  Nobody

"as this reads it seems like meltdowns are only dangerous to you if you're a first responder or some such who jumps right into it..."  Yep, that just about sums it up

"nuclear meltdowns are supposed to kill everyone in the area pretty quickly"  Are they?

"this article leaves one with the impression that if there's an earthquake/tsunami big enough to cause a meltdown, the meltdown is the least of your worries"  Um, yes.

Unfortunately this thing has taken on a life of its own and is probably not correctable.  Decades from now Fukushima will be an example of why nuclear power is a bad idea. It should be an example of why nuclear power is a good idea.  Public opinion has been permanently altered; governments dare not go against the feeling of the electorate and when making energy decisions may take fear of radiation into account more than the science.  Even now well-meaning family members in Australia enquire after my well-being and advise me not to eat the fish; they even express reservations about seafood in Australia...

It becomes difficult to imagine any news that will balance out the negativity; and from now every cancer case in Japan will be blamed by a large section of the public on the reactor accident.  Every story of unnecessary decontamination will become part of the greater 'nuclear crisis', and every minor bumble by TEPCO or the Japanese governement will become evidence of the vast conspiracy of governments and nuclear power companies hell-bent on poisoning all of us and keeping it secret at the same time.

Meanwhile coal, oil and gas power station continue to pour massive amounts of carbon into the atmosphere, simuntaneously spewing out toxic materials out of designed leaks call smokestacks even under normal circumstances.  And when accidents happen to those power stations, well, we don't hear about it for very long.

Check out this video of an oil refinery that burned for 12 days non-stop in Chiba prefecture after the quake.  Never heard of it?  You're not the only one.  We don't hear much in the media these days about the hazardous materials released into the atmosphere from that accident.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Fukushima-linked cancer risk so low it cannot be measured

There was a very interesting article in the Japan Times on Friday.  It concerned the risk of getting cancer due to radiation released from the damaged Fukushima nuclear power plant.  The science is clear- the risk is so low that it cannot be measured.  But that wasn't the interesting thing.  What stood out to me was how the information was presented.

I found it curious how 'no cancer detectable' becomes 'cancer may be impossible to detect'.  In one the implication is there is no cancer; in the other, there is cancer, just impossible to detect. Language is a funny thing. There's a lesson here about how the media works and what people want to read.

The writer is very keen to keep alive the possibility of danger.  Rather than simply inform readers that there is nothing to worry about, the article airs the views of housewives like Yuka Saito, who doesn't let her children play outside from fear of radiation, and makes them wear hats, face masks and long sleeves if they go out at all.  We hear about residents who want to flee but 'have no place to go'.  We read of consumers who are so worried about radiation they constantly carry geiger counters.  One could be forgiven, after having read the article, for having the impression that radiation was a deadly and insidious menace killing at will and unseen.

I think it's very sad that these kinds of views are presented as a valid alternative to those of mainstream scientists who say there is no measurable danger.  The risk is quite literally immeasurably small.  It's impossible to report a measure of risk that is lower than that.  If residents of Fukushima desire to leave because of that risk, can they really said to be acting rationally?  If they move to, say, Tokyo, they will be subject to other small, but actual genuine and measurable risks: the risk of reduced life expectancy due to pollution, the risk of violent crime. 

By any reasonable measure, if risks to health were to be objectively and rationally evaluated and acted upon, then Tokyo would be evacuated to Fukushima.

Of course we cannot rule out the possibility of Fukushima power plant radiation-induced cancer completely.  Science is not capable of that; nothing can be said with 100% certainty.  For example, I cannot rule out with 100% certainty that fairies live at the bottom of my garden.  After all, they certainly are impossible to detect!  But if somebody wants me to take the possibility into account, they are damn sure going to have to provide some pretty convincing evidence. evidence at all.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Fukushima decontamination: Is it really necessary?

You can probably guess my opinion: definitely not.

When the Japanese national government took over responsibility for decontamination of radiation affected areas in and around Fukushima, the initial plan was to decontaminate areas that had over 5 mSv/yr of radiation exposure a year, as determined by aerial survey.  However, demands by local governments, based on residents' fear of radiation, have resulted in an expansion of the decontamination area to include any area of above 1 millisievert a year of radiation.  This is a 7-fold increase in size, from 1,800 sq kilometers to 13,000 sq kilometers, and includes substantial areas outside of Fukushima itself.  Considering that the cost of the first contamination plan was said to be 2.84 billion dollars, the final cost will be colossal indeed.  Are they really going to spend 20 billion dollars on removing topsoil, hosing down buildings, and clearing away rubble?

But wait.  Decontamination is good, right?  It's necessary to ensure the safety of local residents, isn't it?

Well, let's look at 1 millisievert a year (1 mSv/yr) and compare it to other radiation exposures:

  • 1.5 mSv/yr is the average natural background radiation of Australia.
  • 1.5 mSv/yr is also the average natural background radiation level of Japan, according to a pamphlet on radiation released to schools last week by the Ministry of Education.
  • 5 mSv/yr is an exposure typically received by aircrew.
  • 50 mSv/yr is the natural background exposure in several parts of the world, places in India, Brazil, Iran, and Europe. Source
  • 100 mSv/yr is so low that the risk to human health cannot be measured. Source
  • 260 mSv/yr is the natural background level at Ramsar, in Iran, where radioactive spas are used for their beneficial health effects by locals and tourists, and where no increase in cancer has been measured. Source
To me at least, this is definitely a case where fear of radiation has won over reason.  Although educating the public would be much better for Japan in the long term, it seems that short term expediency is more important.  Increasingly, national standards are being dictated by a vocal and paranoid minority.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Radioactive fireworks!

Last weekend, organizers of a festival in Aichi canceled a plan to use fireworks made in Fukushima Prefecture, even though the event was staged in support of regions devastated by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami.  In what must have come as a humiliation to people who actually come from Fukushima, local residents successfully protested the use of the fireworks, fearing they could be contaminated with radioactive materials.  Given that radiation levels in Fukushima are too low to affect human health, and that there is no known way for radioactive materials to enter into...fireworks, the incident might be portrayed as an example of how not to support earthquake affected regions.  This is the kind of irrational fear that will perpetuate and worsen the discrimination that residents of Fukushima already face.

Some people in Japan don't need radiation detectors.  They need irony detectors.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Radioactive Hot Springs in Japan

I wasn't aware of this but Japan actually has many onsens (hot springs) that are naturally radioactive and well-known for it.  In fact Japan has something of a reputation for them.  They are visited by locals and tourists for their supposedly health-inducing and even cancer-preventative properties.  The most common source of the radioactivity is radon, a naturally occurring element that results from the breakdown of uranium or thorium. 

 Here's an ad for Misasa Hot Springs, which promotes its 'health-promoting radium', and a newspaper article about the cancer-fighting action of the radiation at Yawaragi onsen, located, ironically enough, in the mountains of Fukushima.  Wouldn't it be extraordinary if nearby residents had been suddenly evacuated from there because of something they had been enjoying for generations?

Radiation levels at these onsens are certainly low, low enough for radiation hormesis (if it exists) to be responsible for the health benefits, but they certainly raise eyebrows when compared to the kind of radiation that has caused widespread fear since March 11.  According to wikipedia, these kind of hot springs must have a concentration of a minimum of 74 Bq/cubic meter to qualify, and certain hot springs in Italy have concentrations of 4,000 kBq/cubic meter, while I found one Japanese site that states that Masatomi hot spring has a radiation level of 11,000 Bq/liter, and people bathe there and even drink the water for their health.  Those kinds of figures tend to put into perspective the panic that resulted when radiation levels in contaminated beef topped 500 Bq/kilogram. 

I even came across this by accident last week while on holiday in Kagoshima:

"This leg bath is a radon onsen.  For the full body bath please come inside the onsen building."
Where plenty of families (including my own) were happily bathing.

At first I found it odd that there has been no mention of these onsens in the media the last few months.  Upon reflection, it was not surprising, because the media would suffer a kind of cognitive dissonance if forced to confront the contradictions inherent in such coverage.  On one hand the public is encouraged to panic when levels of radiation are over 500 Bq/kilo of beef, but on the other hand people are known to bathe in and drink water that is much much more radioactive than that - for their health...

I wonder how many people in Japan visit their local onsen weekly, unknowingly or uncaringly luxuriating in significant levels of radon-induced radiation, only to fearfully cringe away from Fukushima produce at the supermarket

Monday, September 05, 2011

The Reality of Radiation in Japan

Before March 11, like everybody, I had only the vaguest ideas about nuclear power and radiation. 
But I have to tell you, it has been a revelation since then. I have been reading and reading. The net is extraordinary. I have searched for and read mainstream scientific views, and have been bombarded with alarmist articles and videos by well-meaning friends.  The amount of unsubstantiated fear-grounded media out there is extraordinary.  But if you read the science objectively, in my view it is impossible to not come to the conclusion that 99% of the fear Japan is experiencing is unnecessary.

Half the battle is to be careful about your sources.   This site is an example.  Here, they have just decided to include everything they could find that was anti-nuclear, seemingly on principle, and have thrown in massive numbers that are meaningless without context. Then there are the youtube videos like this one by Arnold Gundersen.  He comes across as a credible speaker and looks the part; then he starts talking about 'black rain', something no reputable media source would mention, and then you know you're in trouble. 

The craziest video is the one called 'Japanese government killing its own people', which you can see here.   You might call it the 'piss video'.  It's an exercise in clumsy propaganda. We don't see the calm, measured presentation from the bureaucrat simply stating that the local radiation is not dangerous. Instead, the original video has been cut and we see this aggressive (and irrelevant) questioning: they don't bother to include anything as boring or prosaic as actual radiation measurements.  I guess people would rather see bottles of urine being thrust around. Oh well. And yes, that Japanese bureacrat does come across as a heartless. But I have to tell you: the man with the urine trying to block the elevator is getting 10 times the sympathy I got last year at the Yokohama immigration office when my visa was unceremoniously cut for no reason from 3 years to 1.   But if I had tried the same shit as the urine guy, I would have been detained, interrogated, and deported before you could say 'discrimination'. My point is: that Japanese bureacrat is being heartless not because of radiation, but because he is a Japanese bureaucrat. And did you ever think why it is THIS video that goes around the net, and not some calm NHK presentation? Well, people love to feed their fears; and this video tells me a lot more about human paranoia (quite a bit) than it does about radiation in Fukushima (nothing).

That's enough of the fear-mongering for the moment.  If you are really interested in finding out the facts, you need to go to trustworthy sources. Wikipedia is one. In fact, it's the best source of information on the planet; because it's free, nobody gets paid, and it is beholden to noone. All it is is people slogging it out with facts and sources. Start with the article on the Fukushima accident

In fact, read the discussion page behind it; it is truly a wonder and I am in awe of it. For example, on the main page there is a quote from a man (I just looked it up, and, low and behold, it is Arnold Gundersen, the 'black rain' guy!), saying that Fukushima was the biggest industrial catastrophe in history.   I thought, that's a bit rough, especially in comparison with genuine disasters like Bhopal in India. So I go to the discussion page and there is a huge discussion about whether to remove the quote. Or not. You should read it yourself and make up your own mind. I also just noticed that above the quote there is a little wikipedia note: neutrality disputed. What other news source will take that much care?  For impartiality, go to wikipedia. 
As for actual radiation measurements in Fukushima (or Tokyo, or anywhere in Japan), they are freely available, in Japanese at least: e.g. an independent company or the more official NHK site

To interprest the figures, you have to know about the sievert, which is how radiation is usually measured when it affects humans affects bodies.  Included in this one unit is all the different types of radiation.  10 of these sieverts will kills you, and 1 will make you sick.  When thinking about how much radiation is dangerous, you can start by comparing the dose to natural background radiation, and that's where it starts to get interesting.   This natural radiation can vary a lot from place to place, anywhere from about 0.3 to 2 or 3 millisieverts a year  (a millisievert is 1/1000th of a sievert.)   Well, according to the Naver site Tokyo today has 0.056 microsieverts an hour, 0.49 millisieverts a year, on the lower end of the natural background radiation range.   Obviously nothing to worry about.   Up in Fukushima itself it is a little more interesting. People in Fukushima city are getting 10.6 millisieverts a year, some 20 times what people in Tokyo are getting.   But, in different places in the world the natural background radiation is substantially higher than even this, up to 20 or 50 or more millisieverts, or even more in certain areas in Iran or India. Those areas do not have higher cancer rates than other areas. In fact, no negative health impacts on humans have been observed for doses less than 50 millisieverts a year (according to who you read, it could be higher). In fact according to wikipedia, some areas in Iran have high natural radioactivity of more than 200 times normal background level, higher than safety levels for nuclear workers, and hot springs there are visited by locals and tourists!

Which brings me to radiation hormesis. Never heard of it? Neither had I, before all this happened. Radiation hormesis is the theory that very low doses of radiation are...good for you! It's not accepted by the mainstream of nuclear science, but there seems to be substantial evidence for it, and scientists are at least taking the idea seriously.  The very lack of widespread knowledge of the existence of this theory should tell you how much the media is disposed to negativity on the subject.  Now, I am not a supporter of radiation hormesis.   I don't have a degree in nuclear science, I have not published on the issue in academic peer-reviewed journals. But the issue demonstrates there is some evidence that low level radiation is good for you, just not enough evidence to overturn the dominant paradigm. Science is very conservative; you need a lot of evidence to overturn an existing theory.  And that's probably a good thing.
Now there a lot of people, strident activists, who are firmly against nuclear power. Arnold Gundersen is one. Helen Caldicott, an Australian woman, is another. You can see an interesting debate between her and George Manbiot, a British journalist and environomentalist.  I've spent hours watching debates like this, and much longer chasing up the substance of what the people say, a much less interesting but rather more illuminating pursuit.  As an example, George Manbiot wrote a detailed reply to issues Ms Caldicott raised in the debate, detailing her inadequacies at some length.  The comments after his article are themselves amazing.

One thing that comes out clearly in these debates is that anti-nuclear activists always maintain the mainstream of nuclear scientific opinion is wrong.   Not only do they question the scientific consensus, they charge that there is a conspiracy, a cover-up, to hide the much more dangerous and sinister truth.  Well, my take on that is this: it stretches credulity to suggest there is a huge international conspiracy, involving not only thousands of respected scientists, but including the organisations of the United Nations.  But this is what you have to believe if you believe that the paranoia and fear-mongering in the media is justified.
For the official, authoritative view of the dangers of low-level radiation, see this publication by the UN Scientific Committee on the Effects of Radiation.  Their FAQ is particularly readable.  In these documents you can see the moderate, rigorously scientific viewpoint.  You might summarize this view by saying that the tiny releases of radiation from Fukushima will have a negligible effect upon human health.  Not only that, but the response of the Japanese government and TEPCO to the nuclear accident, derided in both Japanese and foreign media as shambolic and ineffective, is revealed by the relevant agency, the International Atomic Energy Agency, as both effective and appropriate.
But be aware, now we're getting into the actual science; but it's where you have to be if you want to think about this issue with any authority. It's the kind of authority that Arnold Gundersen and Helen Caldicott have to deny. In fact, it was clear in the debate that she hadn't even read the documents.
For me, personally, I became suspicious of the 'dangers' of radioactivity when I saw how the media was treating it. There seemed to be a lot of panic and precious little data. As an example of the fear of radiation versus radiation, consider the current beef scare. When it broke out NHK featured an hour-long news report focusing on this issue. There was a lengthy introduction, footage from cattle farms in Fukushima, an examination of flaws in the inpection system, repeated shrill announcements of becquerels in the hundreds and thousands, interviews with crying supermarket managers who had inadvertently sold the meat, on-the-street interviews with young mothers fearfully clutching babies and wailing about the safety of their family etc etc. Finally, there was a 10-second clip from an actual nuclear scientist at Tokyo university, calmly stating that you would have to eat a kilogram of the beef every day for several years in order for it to have any measurable effect upon your health.

And that contrast- between 45 minutes of fear-mongering and 10 seconds of reality – tells you all you need to know about the nuclear ‘crisis’ in Japan.
And now, if you haven't before, you are now obliged to read some unashamedly pro-nuclear opinion to balance it up all the negativity. You can start with this site, The Hiroshima Syndrome, which has an excellent chronology of the actual accident, among other things. There is also Rod Adams, who has an interesting take on Arnold Gundersen.  Read it yourself and make your own judgement about him!
For one view of why the media is full of disaster, watch this British documentary.

And here is a link where you can compare fatalities from different energy-related accidents in history. As you can see, nuclear energy is much much safer than fossil fuels such as coal, and even safer than hydro.
Finally, and very sadly, the Fukushima accident will have a long-term and substantial detrimental impact upon the planet, in terms of contributing very significantly to global warming.  Germany may be the first of several countries who regrettably roll back nuclear power because of the irrational fear of radiation.

Thursday, September 01, 2011

Risk vs Perception of Risk

Back in March, in the days after the nuclear accident, there was panicked talk of evacuating Tokyo.

Well, risk is a funny thing.  It is quite extraordinary that we are allowed to live in large cities, with the associated vehicle emissions and other pollutions, shortening our lives by a very measureable amount.  Given that the radiation levels in Fukushima are far lower than those that could adversely affect human health, it is absolutely clear that there was an argument for evacuating Tokyo.  If the people of Tokyo had been evacuated into the Fukushima evacuation zone, they would be living longer than if they stayed in Tokyo city.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Kan goes, Noda becomes PM

Yoshihiko Noda became the new prime minister of Japan today, ending months of speculation about the successor to Naoto Kan. Kan had been a lame duck prime minister since the March earthquake and tsunami, as, despite an overall superb effort of rescue and reconstruction, he was forced to take responsibility for the disaster and especially the 'crisis' at the Fukushima nuclear plant. He finally resigned on Friday, and the Democratic Party of Japan chose their new leader today.
Noda's triumph was not easy; the contest became a battle between Ichiro Ozawa and his enemies. Ozawa himself could not run, as his very membership of the party is suspended due to a funding scandal, but his personal favourite Kaeda Banri stepped in for him. In this light, Noda's victory represents a victory for the anti-Ozawa faction. We shall have to see how he performs. He is said to be a fiscal conservative. Look for a rise in the consumption tax.
That's Japan's sixth prime minister in five years.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Radiation vs Fear of Radiation: The Body Count

Japanese TV and public opinion continues to be dominated by the faux crisis at the damaged nuclear power plant in Fukushima.
There's no doubt that the accident has had a huge negative impact upon the economy and psychology of Japan. But not for the reason you may think. That is, not because of the radiation (there's hasn't been enough to adversely affect anybody), but because of the Fear of radiation. Putting aside for the moment the direct and indirect financial costs this Fear has incurred, a simple body count can be quite revealing.
The Body Count: Fear of Radiation
You can be absolutely sure that if people had been killed by the radiation, we would be hearing about it constantly and numbers would be updated daily. On the other hand, no media source that I can find has attempted to calculate the number of people who have died as a result of the fear of radiation from Fukushima. It's difficult but not impossible to make an estimate. I can think of at least 4 sources of injuries or fatalities:
1. Iodine idiocy: In the first few day after the accident occurred, iodine sales around the world skyrocketed, in the false belief that just taking iodine can protect you from radiation. This happened despite government warnings that iodine was both ineffective and unnecessary. Although I couldn't find any news about people dying, some people appear to have been hospitalized due to overdose. The insanity was particularly spectacular in China, where people rushed supermarkets to buy salt in the false belief that iodised salt could provide protection from Fukushima radiation:
2: Unnecessary evacuation. According to Wikipedia, no less than 45 people died at a hospital in Futaba, Fukushima when the order came to evacuate immediately. Apparently the staff were not equipped to evacuate hundreds of patients and many elderly or bedridden were...left to die of dehydration or inattention. A terible death. And entirely avoidable as radiation levels were never high enough to require such a swift and heedless flight.
3. Suicide. On Google you can find news articles reporting on the 'plague of suicides' as the Japanese supposedly off themselves in droves because of depression caused by radiation. Not surprisingly, the truth is a bit more prosaic. It's true that there was a 20% rise in the suicide rate in May this year- 499 more people killed themselves than in May last year. However, it's impossible to say for certain that these suicides were related to Fear of Radiation as opposed to stress in general resulting from the earthquake and tsunami- loss of family, PTSD etc. As far as I can tell only two suicides can definitely be put down to the nuclear accident: an organic cabbage farmer worried about his soil and a dairy farmer who was forced to slaughter all his cows after the milk became unsaleable.
4. Heatstroke. Since the accident in Fukushima 35 out of Japan's 54 nuclear plants have been shut down for 'renovations' or 'safety checks'. An extraordinarily unnecessary move unless you are expecting another 14 metre tsunami in the near future. And these shutdowns have resulted in this summer's major government appeal to the populace: power saving. And it works: stores have dim lighting, escalators are turned off, even my wife refuses to turn on the air conditioning to below 30 degrees. In fact, she reports from online gossip that in some areas 'neighborhood watch' groups are patrolling the backstreets to find houses with the airconditioning putting out too much exhaust, so they can knock on the doors and harass people (every Japanese neighbourhood has a bunch of middle aged ladies who love to do this). Well, heatstroke this year is up by three-fold. More than 13,000 people were hospitalized in June alone, and 35 have died. Some people will die every year from heatstroke in Japan, but if there is a three-fold rise something is going on. If deaths have also risen three-fold, that works out at maybe 23 people who died unnecessarily because they were attempting to save electricity by not using air conditioning. A phenomenon which I find entirely believable, if very sad.
Iodine overdose: ?
Evacuation: 45
Suicide: at least 2
Heatstroke: 23
Total: 70 plus.
The Body Count: Radiation.
None. And not likely to be any either, as nobody apart from a few workers has received a dose equivalent to the lowest dose that could possibly be associated with an increase risk of cancer or other adverse health effects. And the number of those workers is very small, and statistically they are unlikely to suffer any health effects. At least, not from radiation. The Fear on the other hand...

Saturday, August 06, 2011

Hiroshima does not equal Fukushima

Today is the 66th anniversary of the atom bombing of Hiroshima in 1945. In Hiroshima today, a speech by prime minister Naoto Kan, a 'peace declaration' by the mayor, and comments from bystanders all sketched a similarity and connection between the 1945 atom bomb attack and the nuclear accident at Fukushima in March.
A very regrettable and inaccurate conflation for many reasons. But also a very revealing one.
Conflating the bombing of Hiroshima with the nuclear power accident in Fukushima is like blaming iron mining for gun deaths because guns are made of iron. You may as well accuse the Beatles of murder because Charles Manson liked 'Helter Skelter'. Hey, some people do. But in reality, there is no connection between the peaceful use of atomic power and nuclear warfare except that they happen to use some of the same material. Uranium. Of course, the processes used in the production of energy from nuclear power and the chain reaction used for a nuclear explosion are very different. And if you compare the body count of the Hiroshima bombing to the Fukushima accident (140,000 to zero), you get a snapshot of the absurdity of the comparison.
Nevertheless the fact that the comparison is being made is revealing; for in the public mind atom bombs are connected to nuclear power. Fallout is the same as radiation release; a nuclear reaction is like an atomic bomb; and the unspoken message is that nuclear power can kill us all just like nuclear war can, leave us all in a radioactive Biohazard desert fighting zombies and giving birth to mutant babies with 3 heads and 7 eyes.
Don't laugh this is the secret that lies behind the public's distrust of nuclear power. It explains why it is so hated and feared, and why despite its obvious advantages it is not the main source of energy for human society.
It's also the unspoken rationale for otherwise environmentally sound political groups (like Australia's Greens) who oppose the peaceful use of nuclear power. The older membership of the Greens are veterans of the anti-nuclear protests of the 70's. They can't see the science: in their eyes nuclear power equals the danger of nuclear war. This is a genuine tragedy, for a movement that otherwise has many progressive and life-affirming policies is trapped by this anti-science and irrational fear of the only truly green energy source that can deliver the vast amounts of energy that the world craves.

Monday, July 25, 2011

On Japan and China's high speed rail

Since the high speed rail crash in China two days ago that killed 35 people and injured 200, the accident has received wide coverage on Japanese television.

It's a shame that the coverage has been so ... smug.

The Japanese consider themselves the world leaders in high speed rail. It is true that they have some things to boast about: the shinkansen, Japan's bullet train, is fast, efficient, safe and reliable.

But for some time Japan has, let us say, been a bit perturbed at the rapid spread of high-speed rail in their traditional rival, China. Chinese high speed rail is cheaper, faster, and built at a fraction of the cost. It also has 3 times the rail length of the shinkansen system in Japan.

And for the last two days the avalanche of smug has been overwhelming. The accident has led the nightly news both nights. The lack of safety measures that led to the accident in the Chinese rail system has been emphasised repeatedly. Experts have appeared to express dismay at the poor quality of the Chinese rail system. And tonight there was an extensive review of the Japanese shinkansen safety measures - the meticulousness, the complexity, the multiple layers of redundancy. The implication was obvious: Japanese high speed rail is safe, good and reliable; Chinese rail is dangerous.

I have also heard several times that the Chinese have built their high-speed rail system using German, Canadian and Japanese technology. The subtext here is that the Chinese have to steal technology from others, and that all the success of the Chinese system is due, at least in part, to Japan.

There was also widespread reporting of the 'investigation' into the Chinese accident, which has included burying derailed train carriages in the ground right next to the rails so that trains could run the next day, an action so unlikely in the Japanese context that upon hearing about it, several officials in the Japanese shinkansen department immediately died because their brains exploded.

Of course, the elephant in the room in terms of the history of rail safety in the two countries is the Amagasaki rail crash of 2005 when 106 passengers were killed and 555 were injured when a Japanese local train derailed. Not that this accident has been ignored in the nightly report: it was used to contrast the quality of post-crash investigation. Whereas with the Chinese crash there has been little or no effort to explain the crash or improve safety so far, after the Amagasaki derailment investigators closed the crash site for 25 days while they investigated everything they could, and the rail line itself wasn't opened for 55 days.

To me, however, this tells us more about the faults of the Japanese system that its strong points: the actual cause of the crash was known by the end of the day it happened. Congestion on the Fukichiyama line had reduced the leeway in the train's schedule to just 28 seconds. The train driver had overshot the platform in the previous station, losing valuable time, and in an effort to catch up had accelerated the train far past the safety margin of the curve it was on when it was derailed. This was known almost immediately, yet the line was closed for the next month as engineers took measurements...

Monday, July 18, 2011

Mutant beef invades safety-conscious Japan!

The number of contaminated cattle whose meat was distributed to the poor trusting and innocent residents of Japan has reached 578, and may rise further.

Tonight the news was full of the continuing scandal, brought on by farmers in Fukushima who unknowingly fed their cattle hay that was contaminated with radioactive caesium.

In some cases the contamination was somewhat above the government-set safety levels of 500 becquerels/ kg., e.g. up to 700 becquerels. In a few cases the detected level was much higher, even up to 3,000 becquerels/kg.

But what does that actually mean? Well, if you have spent 45 minutes browsing the net as I have, you will know that it means...not much.

The government-set safety levels are based on the idea that there is 'no safe level' of radiation. Now, nobody has actually shown any negative effects from very low doses of radiation, but what scientists did in the 1950s was extrapolate downwards from the very high doses received in Hiroshima that did kill people or damage their health. It's an exercise akin to observing 50 shots of alcohol in a day will kill 50 % of people (for example), and extapolating linearly downwards and claiming 1 shot will kill 1%. This is obviously wrong for alchohol (hey, I can attest to the benefits of a beer a day), and with radiation it's an unproven idea, but the result is you get things like Japan's very strict safety limits that cause undue panic when they are violated.

This can be demonstrated very easily when you consider naturally occurring radiation. The Japanese are stocking up on brown-coloured underwear right now because beef with levels of radiation of over 500 becquerels per kilo may be in their supermarket. However, even a humble banana contains about 15 becquerels. Eat ten and you already have 150. Eating a hundred bananas at one time (unlikely I grant you) will give you 1,500 becquerels, enough to unleash pandemonium and put you on the nightly news. Coffee has 1000 bq/kg. Half a cup of kidney beans has 30 bequerels. 100 sqm of air in an average Aussie home will give you 3000 bequerels!

Yet again, reality was only given a brief 5 second snippet tonight, when a university professor bluntly stated that you would have to eat a kilogram of this beef every day for a year to have even a barely measurable impact on your health. Of course, if we are considering that level of danger, you may as well take the beef off the market on the grounds that eating much less than that will kill you a lot faster...from arteriosclerosis, colon cancer or gout.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Radioactive Mutant Contaminated Cows!!

Over the last couple of days the media in Japan has been wracked by another nuclear contamination scandal. It turns out that radioactive caesium levels some four times higher than government-set safety levels have been found in the meat from 6 cows from a single farm in Fukushima. Not only that, but some of the meat had already entered the distribution chain when this was found out. Some has been sold and efforts are being made to track down the rest.

Well, how much of a disaster is this really?

Not much, it turns out. Sure, the meat has levels of contamination 4 times the safety limit, but that is starting from a very low base. The safety limits for these things are set at the very bottom of a very large range of possible safety levels. This is done because governments (especially the Japanese government) are concerned about being 'on the safe side'. The 'safe side' is in fact very very very safe, because there is actually very little reliable data (read nil) on the long-term effects of very low-dose radiation in food supplies, leading to very conservative or even paranoid safety levels. In fact you will not be able to find a respectable scientific or medical source that says eating this meat is unsafe. This was reflected in tonight's news. It featured 30 minutes of reports on the 'fear' aspects of the incident: criticism of the inspection system that let the beef slip through; footage of 'contaminated' farms; interviews with concerned mothers; speculations on how much meat may have already been sold; and lengthy reports of government efforts to track down the remainder. In contrast, there was a mere 10-second clip of a medical scientist, who stated bluntly that the eating the beef could not harm human health, and that eating kilos of it would give you no more radiation that you would receive during a chest x-ray.

That contrast, between 30 minutes of fear and 10 seconds of reality should be very instructive.

It tells you all you need to know about the nuclear 'crisis' in Japan.

In a nicely ironic aside, in the last five minutes of tonight's news viewers were given a little glimpse of the real negative effects of the accident at Fukushim. In parliament today Prime Minister Naoto Kan stated that the set goal of a 25% reduction in carbon dioxide levels by 2020 'would need to be revised' as due to the effects of the accident in Fukushima Japan would be unable to rely on nuclear power to the extent it has until now.

Yet another example of how the real problem here is not radiation, but fear of radiation.

Thursday, July 07, 2011

The nuclear industry doesn't have to be quite so stupid.

Today a new and fantastically stupid scandal broke when it was revealed that a nuclear power company in Kyushu tried to influence public opinion by instructing its employees to pose as members of the public and write emails supporting restart of the local nuclear plants.

The emails were sent on June 26 during a live televised debate on whether to restart the reactors or not. The reactors have been shut for maintenance since the March 11 quake and the owners of the plant were also apparently trying to persuade the governor of Saga prefecture, where the reactors are located, to support the restart.

The scandal looks like it will force the resignation of Kyushu Electric Power, Toshio Manabe.

Unsurprisingly, the bulk of the emails received that night supported an immediate restart for the reactors. It is even believed that some emails supporting nuclear power were read out on air, supposedly from normal residents but actually from employees of the Kyushu Electric.

The Japanese nuclear industry has enough public relations problems without actually behaving idiotically and adding unnecessarily to their woes. The eventual restart of all the reactors in Japan is inevitable; Japan cannot survive without them. But it doesn't help anybody when you alienate the public so cheaply and pointlessly.

Truly, this kind of madness is the last thing Japan needs.

Monday, July 04, 2011

Almost missed the front gate guys

Until a couple of days ago I was feverishly and haphazardly preparing for an academic presentation. On several occasions I went to work very early indeed, arriving before 6 a.m., in order to avail myself of the excellent resources available in my office for a couple of hours before the work day started. No matter how early I arrived, the guys at the front gate were there to greet me and pretend to give me my key. Indeed, even in the darkest hour of the night there are no less than two staff members.

Well, once last week I approached the gate, passing one of them who was pretending to sweep litter out of the gutter in front of the gate. I approached the gate room only to find that noone was immediately visible. I had to call out 'sumimasen' once to bring out the second guard from a back room. He literally ran out bowing, repeatedly saying 'moshiwakearimasen' ('there is no excuse for my unforgivable behaviour')

The intensity of his expression of regret made me believe for an instant that I had re-entered the world of reality, and that he was apologising for his presence, instead of for his absence. I allowed myself the fantasy that he had been reading this blog, and had realised that there was no possible justification for his job, and he was now expressing his shame to me in the form of profuse apologies.

Then I snapped out of it.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Aimi Eguchi- as real as you need.

There is an idol group in Japan that is currently very popular ... more obviously vacuous and infantile than even Morning Musume. They are called AKB48, named after a shortened form of 'Akihabara' the electronic goods area of Tokyo now infamous for socially inept nerds, paedophiliac cartoon porn and maid cafes. Even though they are named AKB48, as of this month they have 58 members- which is slightly unnerving, as if they are mutliplying behind your back. They are all young cutish over-sexualised girls wearing short skirts and bikinis and posing as high schoolers - and in fact, many of them are high schoolers.

They travel around Japan putting on stage shows for dull-minded Japanese men unable to forge relationships with real women and desperate to masturbate to schoolgirls dressed like Las Vegas whores. They also sing insanely asinine songs that make you want to kill yourself; indeed their music has congealed into a solid slimy mass that will remain a dead greasy weight upon Japanese culture until the end of time, and at the end of the universe God will weigh it against bushido and kabuki and Japanese literature and find that, due to the vile and soul-destroying emptiness of AKB48, the sum total cultural worth of Japan is a negative.

Their newest member is Aimi Eguichi, supposedly selected out of a recent audition as the representative of the new generation of AKB48. However, it was recently announced that Aimi Eguchi was not selected from anything; she is, in fact, not real at all, being a CG creation. Utilizing 3D rendering tools and motion capture devices, 6 of the top-rated idols of the group had their best features graphed onto Aimi. Thus creating the perfect idol. Oh yeah, she's also 16.

So far she has appeared in several commercials and has also ... appeared in Japanese Playboy. Now that is just creepy, because it raises the question of whether it is okay to jerk off to an underage CG creation. Because, let's face it, Playboy is nothing if not a jerk-off magazine.

However the more I think about it, the fewer objections I can come up with. After all, most of the fan base of AKB48 is well used to jerking off to anime fantasies - the real thing is just too difficult, stressful and imperfect. And who knows, I wouldn't be surprised if Aimi Eguchi had more personality than the rest of AKB48 put together.

Monday, June 13, 2011

More notes from the season of madness

We are in the midst of the rainy season here, and unlike most years in Japan, this one seems to be the real thing, with rain nearly every day, sometimes heavy. The humidity is rising too, which I find quite comfortable, but seems to drive the Japanese crazy with frustration, fear and fungal diseases.

The news is full of speculation about when - not if- Kan will resign. Having narrowly survived a no-confidence vote last month, he appears to be living on borrowed time. The opposition is demanding his immediate resignation. His own party wants him to name the time. Some are saying he will go as early as this month, others suggest August or at the latest sometime in Autumn. Kan himself has said he will work to ensure reconstruction in tsunami-hit areas is on target and the nuclear accident in Fukushima is under control before resigning. This pledge is ironically vague, because post-tsunami reconstruction is proceeding apace - the Japanese can clean up and reconstruct like noone else - and as for the accident at Fukushima Number 1, if it is not under control now it never will be. Kan is trying to leave himself an out.

Nevertheless it is almost certain he will go. We know the who, the how and even the when. The only thing I don't understand is the why. The opposition and many in his own party are saying things along the lines of 'It is impossible to expect the prime minister to put the nation back together; the PM is incapable of leading the country in this time of crisis.' But this is a self-serving line of thought that seems to bear little resemblance to what happened and is what happening.

The truth is, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the prime minister is taking the fall for the natural disaster itself, a Japanese tradition where the guy at the very top must take responsibility for any failure, no matter how remotely removed it is from him. The attitude of the public seems to be 'it cannot be helped'; a fatalistic approach that is also typically Japanese. In my opinion this is a sad loss. Kan didn't cause the tsunami, can't be held responsible for any real (or imagined) failings of TEPCO and didn't start the meltdown in Fukushima.

A meltdown, which, by the way, has killed or injured exactly zero people. It is true that the media has reported that six more workers (to make a total of 8) have been exposed to levels of radiation above that considered 'safe'. The unluckiest is reported to have received 497 millisieverts. However, there have been no adverse effects upon their health reported so far.

As a comparison of the 'twin disasters' as they are sometimes called:

1. Earthquake and disaster: 25,000 killed
2. Nuclear accident in Fukushima: 0 deaths or injuries

Wednesday, May 18, 2011


Recently the media has been talking about meltdowns at 1 or more of the reactors at the Fukushima No 1 nuclear power plant. Specifically, a partial or full meltdown of reactor 1 has been confirmed, and partial or full meltdowns at reactors 2 and 3 are suspected. They still don't know because nobody has been inside reactor buildings 2 and 3 yet to have a look. Actually, today for the first time workers ventured into reactor building 2, to be beaten back by high levels of ... steam.

So in any case it looks like damage to the fuel rods in all three reactors has been greater than feared.

Perhaps I am yet again going against the grain of puclic opinion when I express the opinion that this is very good news. There have been meltdowns in all three reactors ... and nobody noticed! The meltdowns happened in the first few hours and days after the tsunami, before cooling had been restored to the plant, and resulted in the relatively high radiation emissions that were recorded at the time. So basically, the worst thing that could possibly have happened happened...yet nobody was harmed by radiation. No injuries, no deaths. And since then things have inexorably improved...

To me, this is yet more evidence that the danger of radiation from the accident at Fukushima has been massively exaggerated.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

More Madness from Japan

Some more details came out today about the Hamaoka nuclear power plant in Shizuoka. It turns out that its closure has thrown 2,800 people into unemployment and badly damaged the local economy. Not only that, but it looks like the Tokyo government will compensate Chubu Electric and the local economy with public funds...coming from...who knows where, maybe my pension again!

In more crazy news stuff, the first group of residents of the 20 km exclusion zone outside the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant were today allowed to go home temporarily to collect belongings.

Evacuees were outfitted in radiation suits with masks, gloves and footwear designed to protect them from the 'dangers' around the plant. With military precision the evacuees were driven to pre-designated points inside the radius and given exactly two hours to get to their home, retrieve what belonging they could, and return to the buses. Any belongings they managed to get hold of had to be placed in plastic bags measuring 70 centimetres in both length and width. Every person was individually checked for high levels of radiation contamination on return and facilities were set aside to 'cleanse' any people who tested positive for such radiation. In what must have been no surprise, nobody did.

In typical Japanese style, none of these precautions are actually necessary. The area has been perfectly safe for human habitation for weeks, and there is no reason to suspect the situation will change. Workers are sleeping perfectly soundly in dormitories on the actual nuclear plant site. The only dangerous radiation levels are found within a relatively small area around the reactors themselves. Officials know this.

Monday, May 09, 2011

Shizuoka nuclear power plant to close.

Chubu Electric Power company, which owns the Hamaoka power plant in Shizuoka, today bowed to pressure from prime minister Naoto Kan to shut it down.

Over the past few weeks pressure from various sources has mounted to shut down the plant, which is fairly close to the major urban centres of Tokyo and Yokohama, and lies atop a major fault line that could be involved when 'The Big One' finally hits. On Saturday the prime minister officially requested its closure until modifications can be made in order to cope with a major earthquake or tsunami. Although the operators of the plant are under no legal obligation to close it, a Chubu Electric official said, "Although a request, it carries the weight close to an order."

To some extent I can understand the necessity of giving in to public pressure over something like this. But the decision has left Chubu in a serious bind. There is a good chance that available power supplies will not be sufficient to cope with upcoming summer demand, resulting in rolling blackouts over the Tokyo region.

The main concern about electricity supplies will come when summer temperatures reach their highest. This is when air conditioner use goes through the roof. And if this summer is anything like last year's, there will certainly not be enough power. The irony is that last year's heatwave has been blamed on global warming, a trend no one expects to abate in the near future. The nuclear power plant in Shizuoka, like all others in Japan, was doing its part to help Japan reach greenhouse gas emmission reduction targets and thus help to mitigate global warming. Those targets will likely be thrown out the window now, because as part of the attempt to make up the power shortfall, Chubu will utilise heavy oil and liquefied natural gas power plants.

Nor is this decision actually in the interests of public health. One thing that is often forgotten about the Fukushima incident is that everything worked perfectly. The earthquake activated shutdown sytems for all the reactors and all reactors shut down. The problem was in maintaining cooling water for those reactors as they cooled down. What actually happened was that diesel generators designed to do just that failed because of the tsunami. Once that problem is solved (e.g. through an external power source) there is no reason why any nuclear power plant anywhere in Japan should be especially vulnerable to tsunamis.

Meanwhile, because of this decision, efforts to mitigate global warming are adversely affected, the local Shizuoka economy is seriously hurt, Tokyo will likely suffer blackouts, and many people will be out of work.

The more I think about it the more I think I have to go against public opinion and openly support nuclear power. If anything Fukushima has led me to this. If an aging, obselete power plant can get hit by one of the largest quakes on record, be swamped by a 14 metre tsunami, survive a terrible power cut, and still shut down safely without anybody (so far) being affected in any way by radiation, well, let's build more of them. If the bulk of the world's power was supplied with atomic energy, we would have a safe, non-polluting, carbon-neutral, reasonably-priced limitless supply of energy.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Kan to go sooner or later

Prime Minister Naoto Kan is under increasing pressure, from both within his own party and outside, to step down as prime minister and let someone else have a go on Japan's leadership carousel.

Today more than 60 members of his own party, the Democratic Party of Japan, met to discuss ways of ousting their PM.  This is on top of the opposition attacking him for weeks for his 'failure' to bring the nuclear incident under control and otherwise deal with the aftermath of the calamities last Month.

However one of the issuse for his own party is that there is currently no clear alternative to Kan.  The most likely candidate, former foreign minister Seiji Maehara, was forced to resign just before the quake due to an absurd 'only in Japan' money scandal where he unknowingly took donations from a non-Japanese citizen.  It's a real shame he couldn't have hung on for another week, because after the quake everything else was forgotten for a while, and Maehara may have been able to take over by now.  The only other name being thrown around is the old indefatigably corrupt and disingenuous Ichiro Ozawa.  Him becoming PM would be the equivalent of Nixon being elected to the Whitehouse a year after resigning over Watergate.  But hey, it could happen in the Fantasy Land that is Japan.  Rumour has it that he is only interested in becoming PM because as head of state he will be immune from prosecution for all his various scandals.

The weirdest part is that there is no real reason for Kan to go.  I think he's done an extraordinary job.  I want to have his children.  The evacuees are being housed and fed.  Reconstruction is progressing.  Even Tepco has been roundly castigated.  Daily press conferences were held during the worst of the crisis and it was clear even to me that his government was doing the best it could.  The only thing I could disagree with is the passing of the bill to fund compensation and reconstruction using...

... my pension funds.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Cost of disasters to be paid for out of what?!

Japan today widened the evacuation zone to more areas outside of the 20km exclusion zone around Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant.  The new areas includes tens of thousands of people and thousands of farmers.  The prime minister explained that cumulative radiation exposure posed a health risk to residents. 

Except that it won't.  That is, unless there is evidence I'm not aware of that radiation levels in those areas are higher than what is safe for humans.  The move is merely precautionary in nature, and will cost millions of dollars.

Tepco president Masataka Shimizu today confronted angry evacuees in a shelter in Fukushima, apologising to them individually in an effort to repair Tepco's tortured public image.  He copped a fair amount of abuse for his efforts; some people blamed him for their homelessness; others demanded compensation, one guy suggested he move the nuclear power plant next to his home in Tokyo.  It's understandable that evacuees were pissed off, but ... really, people.  None of the evacuees offered him thanks for decades of cheap, safe, carbon-neutral energy.  Nobody thrust the plans for a working fusion energy plant into his outthrust hands, and nobody vowed to cut their own personal energy use by 80% so that the whole country could be powered by renewable sources.

The next news announcement really made my day.  The government announced a new supplementary fiscal budget to pay for reconstruction after the quake, tsunami and nuclear emergency.  It will cover rebuilding infrastructure, subsidising the recreation of the fishing industry, evacuation and accommodation for hundreds of thousands of people, compensation for farmers affected by radiation etc etc.  All in all, 4 trillion yen, about 45 billion Australian dollars... to be paid for...out of funds set aside to cover the gap in the pension plan!

And just to top it off, Tokyo Disneyland is now open.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Robots in the nuke plant... fearmongering moves to North Korea

For the last 3 days, U.S.- made robots have been inspecting the conditions inside the nuclear reactor buildings at Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant.  They have found - wait for it - high levels of radiation, which I found about as shocking as say, detecting high levels of radiation next to a damaged nuclear reactor.  So shocking that I can barely raise the energy to mention it.  The robots couldn't really do much - just roll in, take some video and radiation measurements, and then retreat in the face of scattered debris on the ground.

Meanwhile the centre of world fear-mongering may have moved to that most reliable and objective of medias, state-owned North Korean television.  "The crisis is getting more serious," it was reported yesterday. "Even a month after the accident, we see no prospects of getting radioactive leakages under control."

There you have it, a source you can trust.

In other bad news, more examples of ugly discrimination against perceived radiation victims are popping up.  The so-called 'radiation certificates' are still in wide circulation, and there have been reports that people from Fukushima have been refused entrance to hotels in other prefectures, and that children have been bullied.  There is even the extraordinary case of a an eight-year-old child who lived 20 kms from the nuclear site being refused entry into a Fukushima hosptial as she had no non-radioactivity certification; her father told Japan's Mainichi newspaper that he was shocked that their appointment at the hospital had been cancelled.

Discrimination of different kinds is rife in Japan, but this kind of thing is particularly unsavoury.  Haven't victims of the earthquake and tsunami suffered enough?

Saturday, April 16, 2011

So they're evacuating because...?

The media reported today that radiation levels in Namie, 30 km from the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, were significantly higher than normal.  The accumulated radiation level stood at 17,000 microsieverts since the March 11 incident.  Namie is one of the areas being considered for evacuation.

But how much is 17,000 microsieverts?  Well, it's 17 millisieverts.  100 millisieverts over the course of a year is barely cause for alarm...current radiation workers at Fukushima have had their acceptable levels raised to 250, though this is because of the emergency situation.  And even that is not...anything that can reliably be linked to danger.

These evacuations are causing extraordinary disruption to the lives of tens of thousands of people, costing millions of dollars in the short-term, tens of millions in the long-term, and damaging the production capacity of one of Japan's largest agricultural areas. 

Is it really worth it?

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Another Chernobyl?

The Japanese authorities declared yesterday that Fukushima was a 'Level 7' accident, on the same level as Chernobyl, on the international nuclear incident scale.

I am aware of international paranoia about Fukushima, but I am nevertheless surprised at this.

In the Chernobyl accident, an entire reactor melted down, spewing radioactive material high into the atmosphere where it spread to vast areas around it.  About 30 people died directly from radiation.  The number of long-term deaths caused by Chernobyl depends on what you read, but estimations range from zero to several tens of thousands  Even Wikipedia, which I consider in general the best source of information on the plant, seems unsure, suggesting anywhere from 500 to several thousand.  One issue is that thryoid cancer, the main cancer caused by Chernobyl, has very low incidence rates and a high survivability.  Not only that, but health conditions in the region around the plant are generally not very good in any case, so it's hard to differentiate Chernobyl-induced disease from the usual alcoholism and other health afflictions of the region.  But certainly mainstream experts suggest many people were adversely affected.

In Fukushima nobody at all has died from radiation.  Two people were reported to have been exposed to dangerous levels but it seems like they never got sick.  As for radiation releases, the total amount of radiation released is less than 10% of that released by Chernobyl, and much more localised.  So I am baffled by the decision to place Fukushima in the same band as Chernobyl.  '7' is supposed to be the highest on the scale: what are they going to do in a genuine catastrophe?

It was also announced that a few areas outside the current 30 km exclusion zone will be evacuated, as occupants staying for an entire year will absorb about '20 millisieverts' of radiation, which is substantially greater than background radiation.  Well, okay, you might think.  Sounds dangerous.  But some google searching reveals that 20 millisieverts is well...not very much at all.  More than background, sure.  But the maximum permissable amount of radiation absorbed over the course of a year is set at 50 millisieverts for American nuclear power plant workers.  And the absolute minimum amount that is said to be linked to cancer is 100 millisieverts.  In any words, the amount of radiation accumulated by residents who lived for a year in these areas would be one-fifth of that required to be linked to any cancer.  In addition, as work progresses at the plant, steadily but slowly, radiation levels will decrease so that residents would be absorbing less and less.


The emperor visits an evacuation centre styled by new fashion designer '100 yen'

Sunday, April 10, 2011

U.S. revising 80 km exclusion zone

In the wake of declining radiation levels and increasing evidence Tepco has the long-term situation at Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant under control, the U.S. is now said to be rethinking its 80km exclusion zone around the plant.

In fact, it's becoming increasingly clear the original recommedation was pulled out of somebody's arse in a paranoid fit.  According to Associated Press, on Thursday U.S. nuclear officials told an independent panel that the recommedation was based on imcomplete information and assumptions about the reactors' condition that have since proven false. 

In actuality there was very little need for any exclusion zone from the beginning.  On only one day (March 15th) radiation levels actually dangerous to human health were detected, and that was at the main gate.  Of course, an exclusion zone of some kind was and is both sensible and appropriate.  But a little perspective is in order.  Nobody has actually died from radiation poisoning.  Indeed, only three people are reported to have been exposed to dangerous levels, and to my knowledge they didn't develop any symptoms.  In fact, nothing has been reported about them for several days, and I think it safe to assume they have either been released (to face a lifetime of discrimination) or are still under observation in hospital.

While it's true the Fukushima plant crisis is a major disaster, costing hundreds of millions of dollars, probably billions, the bulk of expense will come from dealing with public fears of radiation and relatively little will be spent because of radiation itself.

Friday, April 08, 2011

In praise of the Japanese government.

There has been a lot of criticism of Naoto Kan's administration since the quake.  There have been accusations that they haven't been on the ball, they've have kept the public in the dark, they have let Tepco come close to destroying Japan etc.  You will even hear many many people openly doubt what the government says about radiation levels in the air and food.  I find this idea particularly distasteful.

Usually I am no fan of the Japanese government but I think they are doing a sterling job.  I'm so impressed, in fact, that I'm considering staying in Japan far longer than I would have.

Firstly, the suggestion that we are being lied to about radiation levels is just absurd.  Radiation levels are independently verifiable, and the amount of measuring going on makes the idea of a vast shadowy conspiracy simply unfeasible.  For example, radiation is being measured in over 1,400 places in Fukushima prefecture alone.  Reported radiation levels in different kinds of seafood and agricultural products are so specific, so jargonized and so opaque that it would be senseless to make them up.  Instead, rather than a situation where the government telling us it's safe when it's actually dangerous, what is really happening is that the media and the public is indulging in fearmongering and panic, so that danger is created where none exists, and risk is vastly exaggerated.  For instance, the increased cancer risk derived from eating 'contaminated' seafood is so negligible that it is completely outweighed by the extra health risk that is incurred when an individual chooses another protein source that is less healthy - such as beef or pork. 

In fact, announcements on radiation levels in food are reliable and so precise that they reflect the Japanese penchant to be anal.  Considering these measurements, the government takes off the market those products that exceed the set levels of radiation - and those levels themselves are extraordinarily strict.  This is because when they were set the authorities wanted to be as thorough and cautious as possible - leaving large margins of safety, mainly because the long-term effects of small radiation levels were largely unknown.  In fact, there is very little expert opinion supporting the idea of any ill-effects from very low radiation doses, so in all probability those set radiation levels are, if anything, too low. 

When the government does make an announcement about an agricultural product they do so with obvious reluctance.  Two days ago they made such an announcement regarding sand lances caught in Kitaibaraki, which has led to a general fishing ban throughout the whole of Ibaraki.  Whenever something like this happens the government takes much of the blame.  They wouldn't do so unless they had to.  So in a sense I enjoy hearing such news, because it means it's trustworthy.

So that's why I trust the Japanese government when they tell me this or that seafood is safe to eat.  That, plus the fact I would never be willing to give up sushi.

I also believe that Tepco should not be receiving so much criticism.  It is true that they have been involved in safety scandals in the past.  For example, in 2002 Tepco admitted they had falsified safety records at the number reactor at Fukushima Daiichi plant.  IAEA officials have also issued warnings about Japanese nuclear reactors in the past, especially in regard to massive earthquakes.  However there is no serious suggestion that I am aware of that this accident could have been prevented.  It was just one of those things, and the Japanese are dealing with it as best as humanly possible.

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

The Good and the Not So Good

The good news is that Tokyo Disneyland is closed for the time being.  This alone increases Japan's cultural value by about an order of magnitude.  The reason is that Disneyland is very energy-expensive, as it consumes the same amount of electricity as 60,000 normal households.  When electrictiy needs to be preserved to avoid blackouts, Disneyland doesn't make the cut.  In addition, Disneyland suffered significant damage during the quake as it is built on reclaimed land and was subject to liquefaction.  One can only hope that the whole things will be 'declaimed' and will sink into the sea.

The not-so-good news is that yesterday's unavoidable release of low-level radioactive water into the sea around Fukushima has resulted in an avalanche of paranoia about seafood.  The release has put Japanese seafood at risk, at least in terms of perception.  Seafood prices are down, and fish from Fukushima is almost unsellable.  Japanese seafood will almost certainly be banned in foreign countries, perhaps for a long time.  The situation was not helped by the revelation today that measurements of radiation on Saturday of water outside the plant showed the radiation level several million times that of normal.  Now that is from a very low starting level, and will certainly be diluted by the vast Pacific Ocean.  But those kind of numbers freak people out.

Tepco is talking about compensation for the fishing industry.  The total cost of the Fukushima debacle, including the effect on agriculture and fishing, will likely run into the billions of dollars (already they are talking about trillions of yen), and there is no way that Tepco can shoulder that, meaning that the eventual cost will be born by the national government.

But for me it all evens out.

Because Disneyland is closed.

Tokyo Disneyland: radiation takes its toll

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Do you have a radiation - free certificate?

Because if you don't you may not be allowed into an evacuation centre in Fukushima.

Radiation screenings have been conducted at the entrance of various evacuation shelters since March 13th, two days after the quake.  A doctor wearing a white hat, mask and gloves measure passes a radiation monitor over your chest, head, back and shoes.  If you haven't been exposed to radiation you will be issued a 'radiation certificate'.

These certificates have become increasingly coveted as residents in these shelters become more and more anxious about radiation levels.  Signs outside some centres proclaim that admittance will not be granted to those who don't have a certificate.  Some 88,000 people have been checked, without anybody coming up as 'positive', yet certificates are becoming more formalised with efforts made to standardise them between doctors, and they are becoming a de facto 'license to exist'.  Officials in Tokyo are concerned about this trend, repeatedly asking that the practice be discontinued, but doctors in affected areas have ignored their advice.  Tokyo officials have said, quite rationally, "It's impossible for people from the affected area to have an adverse impact on people around them as none of them has been exposed to enough radiation to affect their health.  There is no need for such certificates at all."  But as some shelters are refusing admission to people without the certificates doctors have continued to issue them.

In a country as paranoid as Japan one can hardly be surprised at this.  Middle-aged ladies wear white gloves so they don't have to touch door handles.  My students, strapping nineteen-year-old youths, often wear face masks all day to protect themselves from the common cold.  In my former workplace I was often called upon to 'be careful' if I expressed an intention to walk down the hall to the vending machine in the corner.  At landmark tower in Yokohama, people on the undercover walkway are advised to 'watch their footing', not just at the beginning of the walkway, or at the end,  but every 5 seconds along its length.

In the Japanese pysche the world is a very dangerous place.  It can hardly be imagined what would happen if some poor sod actually tested positive to measurable levels of radiation in one of these checks. 

In another 'only in Japan story', today a 38-year-old woman was caught breaking into a convenience store in the tsunami-affected area.  This is one of the few reported incidents of looting.  The Justice Minister responded by calling a press conference to brief the media about this terrible event, which has doubtless led to much soul-searching among politicians and law-enforcement officials. Oh, the horror, the horror.

People refused entrance to evacuation shelters may become upset.

Monday, April 04, 2011

Tepco - Japan's most hated company

More stress today at the number 1 Fukushima nuclear plant.  Tepco workers announced that efforts to block leaks from a cracked containment pit with concrete are not working as water entering the pit prevents the concrete from setting.  Officials have still not identified the ultimate source of the radioactive water - though they suspect that the water is exiting the number 2 reactor's turbine building through a cable trench connected to the damaged storage pit.  The latest suggested fix is to string an underwater 'silt fence' outside the drainage outlet in a bid to capture the bulk of the radioactive particles.  This kind of fence is usually used in river and bridge construction work to prevent the spread of muddly water.

Meanwhile it was announced tonight that 11,000 tonnes of low level radioactive water had been released directly into the sea, as waste from cooling the reactors.  There is a continual question of what to do with the radioactive water as cooling efforts continue.

In Fukushima prefecture itself low levels of radiation continues to be measured in different agricultural products.  Today it was reported that tobacco sales from certain areas of the prefectcure would be stopped as very low levels of radioactivity had been detected in tobacco plants.  The levels excede the government safety limits - it was reported that consumption of this tobacco would result in an increased risk of cancer of 0.05 percent.  Well, I think a little perspective is in order here.  This is verging on the ridiculous to tell the truth.  Considering that smokers have a 30% chance of dying from a smoking-related illness, this kind of statistic reveals in my opinion how paranoid the situation is becoming.  If the authorities were really that interested in public health, they would prohibit the sale of tobacco from anywhere.

Tepco itself is rapidly becoming the most hated company in Japan.  Graffiti has been found at their public relations hall.  The company has been forced to alter their signage, including signs outside company dormitories housing employees, in order to avoid abuse.  Complaints about the nuclear accident and the rolling blackouts have flooded the call centre of the Tokyo branch.  Because the number of calls exceeds the capacity to respond, some people have come directly to the call centre to complain to employees about failing to take their call.  Not only that, but people are protesting outside the call centre because the number of people complaining to the call centre staff about staff failing to take their call has exceeded the staffs' capacity to respond to their complaints, so that they have nobody to complain to.

Okay, I made the last sentence up.  The rest is true.  In addition, a male employee of Tepco said, "Not only myself, but my family is also considerably troubled.  My wife told me, 'I feel the neighbours are looking at me in a questionable manner.'"

I feel for Tepco.  They are doing the best they can under infernal circumstances.  It's not their fault they can't supply all the electricity Tokyo needs.  It's not even their fault their nuclear power plant is leaking radioactive water.  Shit happens, even shit like huge earthquakes and 10-metre tsunamis.

An acquaintance told me he was praying for the all the people in Fukushima.  My thoughts were, if God was answering prayers, maybe he wouldn't have sent the tsunami in the first place.