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.