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.