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.