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.

Sunday, April 03, 2011

Cracked Crippled Concrete

Tepco workers are scrambling to seal a crack in a containment pit next to the number 2 reactor at Fukushima.  They are said to be using concrete to plug the crack, from which radioactive water is spilling into the ocean, contaiminating it.  The ultimate source of the radioacive water is still not known, but some suspect it may be the reactor itself.

That's the latest news coming from on-site.  Cooling of the reactors is still under control.

Off-site, there was one almighty fuck-up by Tepco management when on March 31st they submitted an application to build two more reactors at the plant.  Their application had been completed before the quake but apparently nobody had thought to pull it out before submitting it.  Needless to say the prefectural government reaction was one of fury, while at the national level the media responded with what could generously be called bemusement.  I would not like to be working with the PR department at Tepco right now.  It's impossible to make predictions about the site, but I would think it almost impossible for at least four of the reactors to ever be used again.  The idea that more reactors should be built there sounds pretty bizarre two week's after the nation's worst nuclear disaster.

Friday, April 01, 2011

Back to normal?

Today for the first time in two weeks the nightly NHK news did not lead with a story from the Fukushima nuclear power plant.  Instead, the first news items were about reconstruction in the tsunami-affected areas: preparing for a new school term, trying to restart industry etc etc.  When the nuclear plant did make an appearance, the focus was on continuing containment, rather than dealing with massive new radiation leaks or explosions.  The main item concerned the water that was being used to cool down the reactors: now contaminated with low levels of radioactivity, authorities are debating what to do with thousands of tonnes of low-level radioactive waste water.  It's a tricky one all right.

One was left with the feeling that, regardless of a lack of official announcement, a crisis had been diverted and all that is left is weeks of difficult and hugely expensive clean up.  Radioactivity levels in water in the sea outside the plant are high but dropping.  A 'synthetic resin' is being sprayed over surfaces to trap radioactive dust.  That's where the emphasis seems to be now: containment and cleaning.

Residents of a town 40 km from the plant got a surprise yesterday when levels of radioactivity, as measured by the International Atomic Energy Agency, were double the agency's criteria for evacuation.  The Japanese government defended their own advice, saying the IAEA's measuring methodology was 'not appropriate'.  There was no mention of the issue on the news tonight, but I'm guessing that there are not many people in that town left to worry, they would all have evacuated.

I probably would too, even though, and it feels weird to suggest this, let alone begin to believe it, that low levels of radiation are good for you.  It is even being used by some as healing medication:

There are small differences in day-to-day living now.  Almost all items have returned to the shops, but the brands for rice, milk and tissues/toiletpaper are all different.  All escalators are turned off and the shops are not well-lit as electricity is conserved.  Spinach is strangely cheap as people just avoid it no matter where it comes from.  You just walk over the cracks in the pavement that weren't there last month.  And things just ...aren't as busy as they used to be.  Fewer people out partying on the weekend.  Life is trying to return to normal but in truth people are starting to realise that it will never be the same again.
28,000 people dead.  220,000 homeless.  That's something that is not easy to get over.