Sunday, December 30, 2012

Unnecessary fear of radiation causes obesity in Fukushima

According to data released on Xmas day, Fukushima children are the most obese in the nation. The Ministry of Education, which conducted the study, admitted that the cause may be 'restrictions on outdoor activities due to lingering fears of radiation'.

Fukushima kids are often forbidden from playing outside, even during designated school P.E. class, which often takes place in gyms.

The findings were significant for all childhood age groups. The percentage of obese children is still small compared to obesity levels in the U.S. and othe places: for example, 4.86 percent of 5-year-olds were obese, compared to 2.39 percent of all 5-year-olds in Japan. Yet, over the entire prefecture this adds up to thousands of individuals.

According to wikipedia, obesity has many deleterious health effects, and is one of the leading preventable causes of death in the world. As it is well-known that childhood obesity has a strong statistical correlation with lifelong obesity, we are essentially talking about a health effect that dwarfs any serious scientific predictions of health consequences stemming from exposure to Fukushima radiation. Obese Fukushima inhabitants can look forward to increased rates of cardiovascular disease, asthma, sleep apnea, osteoarthratis, diabetes, and (ironically) some cancers. Overall, obesity reduces your life expectancy by six to seven years.

This is another case of an irrational response to radiation causing measurably more harm than good. It would have been far better for these kids to play outside as usual, safe in the knowledge that local radiation levels are lower than natually occurring background levels in many parts of the world.

We can add this obesity to the list of negative consequences resulting from ill-considered measures taken in response to the Fukushima accident. It is yet another case where the Japanese action, far from addressing any real problem, has merely created one where it need not exist.

Abe's new cabinet

Japan's new prime minister (for a second time), Shinzo Abe, has made statements that probably mean nuclear power will stay on in Japan as part of the energy mix. He has even hinted at the possibility of new nuclear plant construction.

That doesn't mean everything is okay in Japan, however. Far from it. Abe's new cabinet ministries demonstrate, with their Orwellian names and unnoticed irony, the intractable nature of some of Japan's problems.

Hakobun Shimomura is minister for, amongst other things, education reform. Judging by his party's record in past decades when it comes to education however, a more apt title would probably be Minister for the Prevention of Education Reform.

Akihiro Ota is the Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism minister. Covering a wide array of sins, he bears responsibility for administering tens of trillions of yen of completely useless public works, plunging Japan's future generations into debt which it is statistically impossible to repay. The construction industry has been having continual celelebrations since the election. While the more realistic of Japan's commentators acknowledge that what the country really needs is a massive deconstruction program, this is very unlikely in what is basically a return to the dreamworld of the 60s and 70s. Looks like more bridges to nowhere and airports for cabbages. As for tourism, he will be managing the Irreversible Decline of Japanese Tourism as the country turns ever more inward.

Nobutera Ishihara is the State Minister of Nuclear Crisis Management. As the Daiichi plant in Fukushima achieved cold shutdown 12 months ago, and there have been no significant releases of radiactive materials since early 2011, it is hard to see what he will be managing. Having worked in a board of education office however, I can imagine what he will be doing. Having meetings about the chair arrangement in the next meeting, for example.

Masako Mori is the State Minister for Measures for the Declining Birthrate. If ever there is an impossible task, this is it. Japan's fertility is on a one-way trip to extinction, and real measures to address it (empowerment of women, free childcare, flexible work hours, immigration of young people) will certainly be out of her control. Possibly they chose her because it was thought she could reverse Japan's declining birthrate merely by virtue of being a woman herself. If she is planning to do it single handedly, she better get started.

Akira Amari is State Minister for Economic Revitalization. Another Mission Impossible. Japan's ageing and shrinking population, not mention moribund political, financial and cultural customs, make economic growth all but impossible.

Tomomi Inada is State Minister for Administrative Reforms and Public Servant System Reforms. Considering that real policy in Japan is controlled by the public servant system, which has no interest in reform and furthermore that the LDP campaigned more or less on a platform of reversing what reforms had been achieved by previous administrations, I predict that Tomomi Inada will be attending many meetings and not doing much else.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Which direction will Japan go?

In an interesting development,  Prime Minister - elect Shinzo Abe today announced that he will consider revoking the ban on the construction of new nuclear reactors once he takes power.

"We'd like to review how to think about the issue nationwide."

Considering that Abe's party the LDP won by a landslide, one is tempted to think that the Japanese public's tolerance for continual energy uncertainty and  unnecessary nuclear fear was waning, and thus many people voted for the LDP because they are the 'pro-nuclear' party.

If Abe continues in this pro-nuclear vein, he may run up against resistance in the form of the NRA. Japan's new Nuclear Regulatory Authority is proving to be a serious hindrance to the restart of Japan's reactors. So far the authority, which debuted in September, has put serious doubts over the restart of two seperate reactors in different parts of Japan, with the discovery of 'active geological faults' running under them. Considering that the NRA has recently rewritten the rules about what constitutes an active fault, we are talking about earth movments that occurred up to 400,000 years ago. In other words, if you go back in time to when the last quake occurred, the only inhabitants to notice might have been Homo Erectus. They then had 100,000 years to consider the earthquake before they became extinct, and then there was another 300,000 years before modern Japanese came along to worry about the next one. If the next quake affecting that fault line is a further 400,000 years in the future one could hardly be expected to write safety guidelines with the future inhabitants in mind. My guess is they would have other things to worry about.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Japanese election

Japan looks set to continue its recent tradition of changing prime ministers every year with a general elections set for Dec. 16. The public is seemingly unimpressed with any of the candidates; poll regularly report that more than 50% of the electorate does not prefer any of the parties.

Among the major contenders Shinzo Abe, the leader of the Liberal Democratic Party is seen as most favourably inclined towards nuclear power. He has stated that nuclear electricity production will continue after safety checks have been performed on all reactors. The LDP is also the party most likely to end up in power. As far as it goes, this is good news for Japan; but the LDP is also the dinosaur party; they have ruled oligarchically since the 1950s and are said to be puppets of the bureaucrats. It is impossible to be optimistic in the face of another LDP government; Japan will just continue to the abyss, sleepwalking to oblivion. It is the LDP that is most responsible for pushing the country into the permanent decline it finds itself. For example, their economic policy is simply to 'promote public works to revive the economy', an action so unlikely to revive the economy that you may as well give the money to me and I'll spend it on sushi.

Abe's rivals do not exactly seem promising either. The current government of prime minister Noda is getting support in the single figures and will surely be thrown out. Then there is the rise of the so-called 'third force', which formed when maverick rightwingers Toru Hashimoto and Shintaro Ishihara joined forces to create the Japan Restoration Party. They have expressed contradictory attitudes to nuclear power (Hashimoto wants to get rid of it and Ishihara wants to keep it) and Ishihara is a right nutter. He is 134 years old, and his version of 'restoring Japan' is to discard the alliance with America and re-assert the country's rights against China, whilst re-writing the constitution to allow rearmament and possible nuclear weapons development! Way to go, you can make enemies of everybody! Unfortunately he is just stubborn and crazy enough to get some votes, and may end up kingmaker if nothing else.

Other minor parties seem to be dominated by the issue of nuclear power and how soon to get rid of it.

Overall, at best we can expect unimpressive mediocrity. Just lower your expectation and everything will be okay.

Friday, December 07, 2012

Japan, Doha, and other dreams

Japan was once the host and most ardent support of the Kyoto Protocol - the closest thing the world has come to a real agreement as to how and when to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. When historic international agreement was reached in Kyoto in 1990 Japan led the world with a pledge to reduce its greenhouse emissions by 25% before 2020. With 30% of its electricity being supplied by nuclear energy and more plants being constructed, it seemed achievable.

Yet that dream seemed far in the past when on Wednesday Japan was awarded the 'Second Fossil Award' by the international environment organization The Climate Action Network for failing even to mention its own Kyoto Protocol pledges in its speech at the Doha Climate Change Conference.

Japan had earlier been awarded 'First Place Fossil Award' on the opening day of the conference for its lack of effort against global warming.

The dismal effort on the part of Japan has served to undermine an already fragile conference. Among the conference's mild ambitions was to gain international agreement to extend the Kyoto Protocol, as the original pledge made by 40 countries- to reduce greenhouse emissions by 5.2% below 1990 levels between 2008-2012 - is in no danger of actually being realised.

Now it looks as if even that modest goal -of extending the Kyoto Protocol - is unikely to be realised.

Few of the developed countries back the extension. The United States didn't even ratify it in 1990, arguing that it was useless to do so when developing countries such as China and India were exempt.

Some might argue that that refusal alone rendered the Kyoto Protocol an empty agreement, but hey, only a cynic would say that right?

Russia, Japan and Canada are pulling out, while major developing countries (including China, now the world's largest producer of greenhouse gas emissions) still have no binding targets.

That leaves, um, well, mainly Australia and the European Union.

The conference has become so ineffective that, in a massive display of unintended irony, Kumi Naidoo, the head of Greenpeace, called on conference delegates to prevent Doha becoming a disaster, saying 'This has been almost a laughable exercise.'

Perhaps Kumi was unable to see the link between Japan's failure at the conference and the mothballing of its 54 nuclear power plants? Perhaps Kumi believes that the risk of, um, well, nothing really, outweighs the benefit of having a Japan able to pursue a greenhouse emissisons reduction target of 25%.

That must be an extraordinary level of doublethink.

Thursday, December 06, 2012

Japan backpedals on greenhouse emissions pledge

Some chickens came home to roost yesterday when an Environment Ministry official was forced to admit that Japan's 2009 pledge to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 25% would be difficult to fulfill.

"Japan is discussing how to achieve its pledge of cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent by 2020, including the possibility of revising it," said ministry official Shuichiro Niihara on Wednesday

As well as being an implicit admission of failure, the statement also includes the interesting claim that you can 'achieve' a pledge simply by changing it and fulfilling the new pledge.

The official did state that the goal of cutting emissions by 6 percent by 2012 was likely to be reached. This would be great if true but of course it is impossible; I would dearly like to see the numbers which show that Japan can produce less greenhouse gas than in 1990 while closing down its entire nuclear industry in 2012.

Unfortunately the confidence of the ministry official has little to do with emission cutting and much more to do with carbon trading. In the carbon trading system, Japanese companies, if unable to cut emmissions enough on their own can buy the rights to pollute from other countries that have not reached their own 'emissions cap'. The thinking behind such systems is that if a price is put on carbon emission, the free market will start to operate on carbon, and those who can reduce carbon emissions most cheaply will do so, thus achieving the pollution reduction at the lowest cost to society.

The end result of all this is that Japan can claim it has reduced emissions by keeping under its emissions cap. The fact that they have merely bought another country's right to pollute is usually and conveniently ignored. Whatever carbon trading schemes are capable or not capable of doing, Japan hasn't actually reduced its carbon emissions.

As I observed in my previous post, world carbon emissions, rather than being affected by the Kyoto Protocol or other international agreements, are actually increasing every year. Without widespread adoption of nuclear power this trend will continue and the world will suffer.

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

Global carbon dioxide emissions up

The journal Nature Climate Change has published a new study with estimates of last year's global carbon emissions, which topped out at 38 billion tons of carbon dioxide. This is a huge number, and it increases every year, despite all the best efforts of scientists and diplomats.

Global warming is a reality. And although there is room for debate regarding the impact this warming will have on the Earth in terms of temperature increase and sea level rise, the scientific mainstream is united in the assertion that global warming is happening and is a serious problem. And though how serious it all becomes remains to be seen, it is worth noting that former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd memorably (and, for him, regrettably) called it the Greatest Moral Challenge of Our Time.

I am always intrigued how this issue tends to take a back seat when it comes to environmentalist groups criticising nuclear power. They are very keen to talk of 'safety' and 'protecting our childrens' future', but don't seem to have available the plans for a working fusion power plant and are always quite happy to plug into a power point that inevitably draws electricity from fossil fuel sources. If pressed, green groups wax lyrical about renewable energy, yet seem immune to answering the hard questions that inevitably arise.

The truth is that renewable energy just doesn't cut it. Essentially, wind, power and tidal are just too diffuse and too unreliable. In practice no large country or city can expect to get more than 10-15% of its power from renewable energy. The problems of distribution, storage and base load provision are just too insurmountable. Germany is finding this out right now.

Just for fun, let's do a little thought experiment with wind power. The electricity generating capacity of Japan in 2010, according to wikipedia, was 283 gigawatts (GW). A typical large wind turbine has a capacity of 3 megawatts (MW), and needs spacing of 6-15 rotor diameters. Generally they are placed 1-2 kilometers apart. As turbines only produce about 15-20% of their capacity on average (and often less than that) to produce 283 GW (283,000 MW) you would need 471,000 huge turbines spaced out at least 1 kilometer apart. This would go around Japan's coastline (34,751 km) more than 13 times, extending 13 km inland, and pretty much making the archipelago uninhabitable. It would cost tens of billions of dollars and be a construction effort rivaling anything yet produced by humanity. 

And what you would do when the wind doesn't blow, well, I can't imagine.

The problems are much worse for developing countries such as China and India, which can't supply more than a small percentage of their power from renewable sources now, let alone in the future with a vastly increased electricity demand. India alone has 400 million people without electricity.

It is obvious that without a reliance upon nuclear energy, the vast bulk of future electricity production will come from fossil fuels, making a mockery of the Kyoto protocol and other international agreements intended to control global carbon emissions.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Coal, mercury and green hypocrisy

 One of the things that pro-nuclear advocates find so irritating is the obsession on the part of many with nuclear waste, as if the waste products from nuclear power were in some way more toxic or uncontrollable than other kinds of industrial waste.

Mercury that is released into the atmosphere becomes methylmercury that is easily absorbed by plankton in the oceans and works its way up the food chain through the process of biomagnification. At each stage in the food chain the mercury is concentrated more and more, so that end stage predators such as swordfish, shark and tuna can sometimes have toxic levels of the element in their flesh. This can cause a serious problem, especially for pregnant women. In the U.S., the largest single source of mercury contamination is the coal industry.

While this is a serious environmental problem it is never accorded the same danger status as minute amounts of nuclear contamination in the flesh of seafood, far too low to actually cause illness to humans, and in fact only detectable because the instruments that can detect the contamination are extraordinarily sensitive. This is the case for various fish catches around the Pacific that have minute levels of caesium that have been attributed to the Fukushima accident.

While reports of radioactive contamination in fish invariably elicit reactions of horror, contamination by mercury while acknowledged as dangerous is considered to be much more routine. In the movie The Cove, which critically examines the dolphin hunting industry in Japan, this mercury contamination is continually mentioned as a reason for humans to avoid the consumption of dolphin meat. Yet the source of the mercury is not mentioned, let alone the only real alternative to this constant release of mercury into the environment, which has to be nuclear power.

I very much doubt that the people who made The Cove (or indeed, many of the people who saw the movie) are realistic about the implications of their obsession with mercury. If followed to the rational conclusion, if indeed people have the goal of reducing the danger of pollutants in the atmosphere and oceans, it is inevitable that the best way to do that is to replace coal power with nuclear.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Letter to the Prime Minister of Japan!

Dear Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda,

For the sake of Japan, and for the sake of the world, I implore you to consider the issue of nuclear power in the spirit of moderation and reason, and resist efforts by the anti-nuclear lobby and elements of the media to promote fear and panic.

The most false and distressing of the efforts is the attempt to conflate the peaceful use of nuclear power with the terrible atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War Two. The events are incomparable, as is clearly showed by the human cost. On the one hand, over 100,000 people were killed by the Hiroshima blast. On the other, nobody has been killed or injured by the Fukushima accident. Yet an extraordinary example of this propaganda was published by the Japan Times’ Hotline to Nagatacho on the 9th of October, when the article, incredibly, decried the reopening of schools within the former evacuation zone, protesting at the temerity of people wanting to return to their homes, reform their communities and start the rebuilding of their lives. The author, who didn’t deign to offer anything as prosaic as radiation measurements, implied that the children going to the schools would suffer the same fate as the children of Hiroshima sixty-seven years ago!

It is well-known that low dose radiation is of zero or negligible risk to humans, yet the unwarranted fear of radiation is destroying the future of Japan.

A clear example is the Nuclear Regulation Authority’s decision to expand the evacuation zone around nuclear power plants to 30 km, massively compounding unnecessary fear and sending municipalities nationwide into a frenzy of useless planning. Was it not enough that 573 people died because of unnecessary and panicked evacuation after the Fukushima accident, including dozens of elderly patients simply abandoned in hospital to die a degrading death? Not only that, but the NRA is said to be considering expanding the definition of an active earthquake fault line to one that has moved within the last 400,000 years, thus putting into doubt the restarting of nuclear plants all over the country. Is it really possible that humans could be so foolish as to curtail a vital economic activity at a given site because of the hypothetical risk of an earthquake every 400,000 years?

The linking of the use of nuclear weapons with last year’s accident at Fukushima is specious. It is also unethical. Yet ironically, there is a useful lesson to be learned in this attempt at conflation by the anti-nuclear lobby. It reveals the real source of public anti-nuclear sentiment – an unconscious equivalence of nuclear power with the destructive terror of nuclear weapons. Never mind that when considered rationally, nuclear power is the safest large-scale source of energy available to humanity. Never mind that nuclear energy is incomparably healthier than energy produced by fossil fuels, or that it is vastly cheaper and more reliable than renewable energy or that it produces close to zero CO2 emissions. Never mind those things; because at some deep level of the public’s unconscious nuclear power equals terrible danger.

Mr. Prime Minister, the government has the right and indeed the duty to make decisions based on science and reason, and not be swayed by the irrational. The fear of radiation is a phobia that defies reason, and rather than pander to this fear Japan should recognize the advantages of nuclear power and continue its steady expansion. The benefits are undeniable and the bulk of the criticism it attracts is simply ill-founded. To paraphrase the words of American liberals, reality has a nuclear power bias.


Saturday, November 10, 2012

Evidence for Linear No-Threshold Theory?

A new study has just been released that casts doubt on the theory of radiation hormesis, the idea that low doses of ionizing radiation can be good for you. It seems to provide some evidence for the Linear No Threshold theory, which assumes that cancer risk is directly proportional to the amount of radiation taken in, so that there will always be some risk, even as very low doses. What this theory means is that while the risk for the individual may be very low, over a large number of people there will be some cancers that are induced by radiation.

The model has always been controversial, and extremely difficult to measure, because at such very low levels of risk it is difficult to separate confounding factors in statistical studies. Even things like different populations being more reliable in self-reporting smoking rates can confuse things so that results are not reliable.

This Linear No-Threshold Theory (LNT) has always been doubted by pro-nuclear experts. After all, what other substance in the universe has new threshold for effect? Even poisons like arsenic have a minimum does below which no effects at all can be expected. Wade Allison sums up this skepticism:

"In earlier decades knowledge of cell biology was too primitive to provide confident understanding, and adequate evidence of the effect of radiation on humans was no available to corroborate any particular view. In their absence, and for lack of anything better, the knowledge gap was bridged by a rule of thumb - a model in science speak. This is the LNT model. This assumes that clinical damage is in simple proportion to the initial radiation energy dose. No justification was given for it, but it was a reasonable working hypothesis at the time. Despite the poor state of knowledge, a start had to be made somewhere."
(From Radiation and Reason, p. 44)

Now the most rigorous support for LNT, at least to my knowledge, has come in the form of a study of 110,645 people involved in the cleanup after Chernobyl. It concluded that despite the relatively low doses of radiation received, there was a significant increase in the risk of getting leukemia.

We are talking about a very small number of cases, 117 cases of leukemia. It was estimated that 16% of leukemia cases were attributed to radiation exposure, that is, 19 cases. The cleanup workers also received considerably more radiation that residents of Fukushima. Just to put this in perspective, 19 cases is 0.0019 % of the deaths that can be attributed to coal dust every year.

Nevertheless it has thrown the pro-nuclear community into a bit of a tizzy. Any evidence for LNT will be more fuel for people who say that any level of radiation is dangerous. The inevitable claim will be that there is actually some risk for people up at Fukushima. If you crunched the numbers you might come up with 2 or 3 cases of leukemia, at a guess.

You can read the paper here. If it is deliberately anti-nuclear, it is massively more sophisticated that the propaganda put by Arnie Gundersen or Helen Caldicott.  Certainly it is beyond my skill set to critique.

You can read an early response by a pro-nuclear blogger here. I will be watching carefully how this all goes down

Friday, October 26, 2012

Nuclear regulator changes looks to change definition of 'active fault'.

Japan's Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) has announced that it will review what constitutes an active earthquake fault in a nationwide survey of nuclear power plants.

Currently faults that have moved sometime within the last 120,000-130,000 years are considered active.  The NRA reportedly intends to extend the definition to cover faults that have moved within the last 400,000 years.  As the government does not allow nuclear power plants to be built over 'active' fault lines, this could put into doubt both current construction projects and the planned re-starting of power plants that have already been built.

The NRA is not overt about why they are making this decision, but I think that one can assume that activity within the past 400,000 years is dangerous because of the complementary possibility of activity within the next 400,000 years.  In other words, the NRA is intending to prohibit the operation of nuclear power plants because of the possibility of an earthquake under the plant sometime within the next 400,000 years!

Am I the only person in Japan who finds this idea completely preposterous?  Am I really living on a planet where people can curtail economic activity because of the possibility of an earthquake 400,000 years in the future?  Is my species truly that idiotic?

Let's consider some of the real threats humanity will likely face during that timespan.  The next ice age is expected anytime within the next 30,000 to 100,000 years.  A supervolcano along the lines of the TOBA eruption, which almost caused the extinction of the human race, is estimated to come along about every 50,000 years.  Then there are asteroid strikes; a hit with a space body of 1 kilometer in diameter, more than big enough to destroy civilization, occurs every 500,000 years or so.

This is the category into which an earthquake-caused nuclear accident is being placed.  Despite the fact that the largest quake in a thousand years of  Japanese history did not seriously damage Fukushima Daiichi. That despite 3 meltdowns, nobody was killed or injured.  Despite the fact that no nuclear power station has ever been seriously damaged by earthquake, anywhere.

Ah, the irony.  The only effect this ludicrious regulation will have will be to increase the chances of the Japanese nuclear industry not rebounding fully.  This in turn will seriously impact on one of the most urgent of humanity's real challenges: mitigating climate change caused by CO2 emissions.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

In which the Japanese government inadvertently perpertuates fear

Since March 11 last year, the Japanese government has been between a rock and a hard place in regard to its public policy on nuclear power and radiation.

On the one hand, the Japanese economy depended on (and, in truth, still depends on) its large fleet of nuclear power stations to provide reliable power.  In addition, I am quite sure that those who make decisions have been informed about the scientific and engineering realities and are quite aware that the radiological effects of the accident were minimal, at least after the panicked days of the middle of March.

On the other hand, an increasingly fearful public has made ever-more desperate and irrational demands, whipped into paranoia by a global overreaction and a general fear of the unknown.  In retrospect, this was entirely predictiable.  In the Japanese psyche, the world is a dangerous place.  These are a people who are afraid of sunlight (which, admittedly, is far more dangerous than nuclear radiation and causes millions of cancers every year). So it is little surprise that something which is invisible, esoteric and known to be dangerous could generate such fear.  The only surprise is that public reaction has been so vocal and vehement, a rarety in Japan.  In fact, the misdirection of dissent is a real tragedy. If only this anger could have been directed at government-industrial corruption, or the abusive education system, or the entrenced gerontocracy, all things which might have been the targets of a real revolution.

But this fear of radiation is a fear that knows no boundaries, that is not susceptible to reason or concession.  Arguments about dosage and safety limits fall on deaf ears.  Thus the Japanese government has been forced, in a futile and self-defeating attempt at placating public concern, to assume a stance that publicly presents minute amounts of radiation as a threat to public health, and perpetuates the belief that the accident is a continuing crisis.

A number of examples can demonstrate this problem:

  • The government has repeatedly revised safety limits of various isotopes in foodstuffs downward, to where the limits are significantly below safety limits in other countries, which are already extremely conservative.
  • There is an actual ministry devoted to perpetuation of fear, with its own 'nuclear crisis' minister, Goshi Hosono.  What his duties are it is challenging to imagine.
  • The government is going ahead with expensive and unnecessary 'decontamination' in areas that were evacuated, right down to areas getting 5 millisieverts of radiation a year, a level barely above background radiation.
  • 'Public hearings' were staged which were designed to give people the chance to discuss Japan's energy policy, but the meetings were so vitriotically anti-nuclear that when a pro-nuclear speaker received hundreds of complaints Mr Hosono was forced to step in and promise that such a speaker would not be heard again.
  • Even the word 'crisis' is still being used, months after the plants achieved cold shutdown.

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

A nuclear wasteland?

Here is a picture of downtown Hiroshima.

On the 6th of August 1945, the U.S. dropped an atomic weapon on the city, killing 90-160,000 people, of whom 15-20 % were killed by the radiation produced in the explosion and not by the explosion itself. 

It looks quite nice now, and I quite fancy the Starbucks frappaccino.

Although a direct comparison between Hiroshima and Fukushima is not possible as the events were very radiologically different, it may be useful to think of the image of a bustling modern Hirshima when considering claims made by some anti-nuclear activists, such that large areas of Northern Japan will be 'uninhabitable for centuries', or that Fukushima will be a 'wasteland for a thousand years'.

Monday, October 08, 2012

Why we don't need Fukushima 'decontamination'

Yesterday Prime Minister Noda visited reactor 4 up at Fukushima Daiichi.  Amongst other things, he was seen inspecting the spent fuel pool, yes the one that will supposedly kill everyone when it collapses.  The PM was wearing a protective suit, probably a good idea as a precaution, though it might have been more useful were we granted updated reports of actual radiation levels at the plant.

During the day Noda also visited an elementary school in Naraha, a town in Fukushima prefecture within the 20km radius of the plant that is currently undergoing 'decontamination'.  There the Prime Minister gave a speech stressing that decontamination efforts must continue in order to 'revive' Japan.  According to information released to the media, Naraha is in the 'first zone', which is receiving 'less than 20' millisieverts of radiation a year.  Those watching were treated to pictures of workers wearing ludicrous protective masks clearing rooftops of leaves and other rubbish...

It is worth pointing out that moving to Naraha today and living there for a year, you would receive rather less than 20 millisieverts of radiation, because radioactive isotypes have been decaying steadily since the accident, when these radiation estimates were made, and will continue to decay.  To my knowledge, radiation levels on the day the measurements were taken were simply extrapolated for an entire year, leading to a yearly measurement that wildly overestimates the actual radiation level.  This kind of thing is regularly done when radiation is concerned just in order to be conservative, to be 'on the safe side'.  I wouldn't suggest that it is not advisable to have a margin of error, but it is a good idea to keep overestimation in mind when these issues are discussed.  In this context, it is a shame that current radiation levels in Naraha town weren't made available on the same broadcast as the Noda speech; that might have been interesting.  My guess is that they would be very close to background level in the rest of Japan.

Even if the radiation level in Naraha is accepted as 20 mSv/yr, this is one-fifth of the dose estimated by a plethora of respected international bodies to be the minimum that could possibly expose a human to possible health risks.  And we are talking about highly conservative ultra-safe judgements made with the goal a having a wide 'safety margin'.  For example, UNSCEAR's conclusions are made reflecting the background of the most rigorous scientific studies on the planet, capable of detecting the elevated cancer risk of a minute fraction of a per cent that results from being exposed to radiation of more than 100 mSv/year, and then only if the most pessimistic of unproven theories of radiation is accepted.

20 mSv/yr is also about one twentieth! of the radiation that residents of Ramsar, Iran receive as natural background radiation every year, without any known deleterious effects.  It is no higher than the natural background in many other parts of the world, and comparable to many many others including Denver, Colarado.  It is the equivalent of a single chest scan, and much much less than a full-body CT scan; yet medical scans deliver this radiation over a single dose, not spread out over an entire year.  Yet nobody seems to be complaining about chest scans, or demonstrating outside hospitals waving pictures of deformed fetuses.

When I think of some of the likely things those workers have done in their lives that have measurably increased their actual risk of cancer before they started cleaning rooftops in Fukushima prefecture I feel a certain amount of righteous anger.  Have they ever lived in a major city with smog?  Do they eat fried chicken? Drink too much? Go out in the sun? God forbid, did one of them whack a cigarette in his mouth a minute after taking off his mask?

I'm thinking here that if Noda really wants to 'revive' Japan, he might be better off trying to 'revive' a sense of perspective and start dealing with problems that really exist.

Sunday, October 07, 2012

Nuclear Power: Why the hell not?

This blog has very nearly become totally dedicated to the support of nuclear power in Japan and throughout the world.  My conversion from skeptic to nuclear supporter has been accompanied by a slow shift of perception in other areas of opinion; this is because once atomic energy is accepted as the basis for the production of the bulk of world energy supplies, many other seemingly intractable problems crystallise into non-issues.

Naturally, energy production becomes vastly more sustainable and reliable.  There are no more concerns about peak oil.  And oil itself becomes vastly less valuable- its main remaining use being for the production of gasoline.  That would remain a problem, but long-term it is possible to imagine all vehicles being electrical vehicles.

When you consider the fact that tension and war in the Middle East is due, at least in part, to desire for oil on the part of the West, it is not completely naive to believe that, if that desire were to subside, the stresses that have led too many times to war in the region will also subside.  For example, America would have had no need to invade Iraq if they hadn't neede to guarantee oil supplies from the region.  A dependence upon oil keeps many economies vulnerable to political crises in one of the most unstable parts of the world- and Japan is one of those economies. And if you believe for an instant that the American invasion of Iraq had nothing to do with oil and everything to do with 'weapons of mass destruction', I invite you to consider the case of North Korea, which to this day is still working on atomic weapons but, luckily for them, has no oil.

Around the world carbon-trading schemes are costing huge sums of money, often with the net outcome of no reduction of carbon emission at all, as the 'right to pollute' is merely traded.  All that results is the supression of economic activity. In Australia the issue of carbon-pricing has brought down a prime minister, an opposition leader and very nearly a government.  The newly-introduced emissions trading scheme remains hightly unpopular and has substantially raised electricity prices around the country.  And the scheme, which is designed to make non-carbon-emitting energy production competitive, is in its very conception ludicrous, as the most efficient production of emission-free energy, nuclear power, is illegal in Australia. If there were nuclear power in Australia, there would be no purpose in having such a scheme, as nuclear power is practically emission-free.

Pollution around the world, from coal ash, gasoline exhaust and many other pollutants would be vastly reduced in a nuclear world, saving about 2 million lives a year.  Global warming would be massively mitigated, and the attention of world governments could be more readily directed to other pressing concerns, such as poverty and hunger.  Which, by the way, are much more easily alleviated with a source of clean, reliable and conflict-free power. 

I am not suggestion that nuclear power can single-handedly solve the world's problems.  But it is galling to me when something extraordinarily useful and productive is being ignored, or worse, treated as it were a problem.  It doesn't have to be this way.  A better world is possible.

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Great news!

Unless of course you are interested in say, protecting the environment, saving money, or preventing the wastage of hundreds of billions of dollars.

The Japanese government estimated today that if it is to completely phase out the use of nuclear power by 2030, it will have to invest 50 trillion yen (about $638 billion) in alternative energy infrastructure.  In addition, the cost of electricity for the average household will double from 16,900 yen to 32,243 yen per month.

A few more grandmothers will have to make some more deposits in their post office bank accounts to collect that kind of money, I think.

Does it really have to be noted that Japan does not have enough money to pass budgets as it is?  Is it possible to imagine the economic chaos that would ensure if the government actually decides to pursue this ludicrous course?

Hopefully I will not be stupid enough to still be in the country if it does.

Friday, August 31, 2012

Heard about the Venezuelean oil refinery disaster?

Thought you might not have.  Last Saturday an oil refinery in Venenzuela exploded, resulting in the deaths of 41 people and injuring at least 80.  Here's a link

Worldwide media coverage was ... well, let's just say that the media was less than saturated.  Headlines were not made around the world.  People have not boycotted food from Venezuela, large parts of the country have not been declared 'uninhabitable'.  Nor have self-proclaimed 'experts' appeared on TV in America and Europe to dramatise the danger and suggest that people in far countries are at risk.

All this despite the fact that the disaster (an actual, genuine disaster) released massive amounts of toxic waste and dangerous fumes into the atmosphere.

If the accident had been nuclear...well, who can imagine the public reaction when a nuclear incident that killed or injured noone in Fukushima last year has generated such horror, such fear, such terror?

The demands placed on the Fukushima accident to be 'safe' are extraordinary and it has passed them all with flying colours.  It's impossible to cause fewer casualties than zero.  Fukushima will not be any safer until radiation starts raising people from the dead.

How do people continue to ignore this hypocrisy?

Here's the response from the oil industry regarding the Venezuelan explosion.  It's good for a laugh.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Neil Armstrong

So Neil Armstrong has died.

I seriously wonder whether I will see the day in my lifetime when the last person to have walked on the moon dies.  There seems little prospect of anybody else landing on the moon.  Or anywhere.

I am very disappointed with the future.  I want my moon holidays, my flying cars, robo-maids and hoverboards.  Not to mentions sex bots.

All we've got spacewise at the moment is a big rover on Mars.  A not  insignificant achievement, but certainly with little possibility of anything interesting being found.  Robots first landed on Mars in the 70s.

The essential problem is that it is impossible to make money out of space.  Nobody could possibly make money going to the moon again, let alone Mars or somewhere further away.  That means governments, and in the current economic climate (and, I suspect, the climate for many years to come) governments will not possibly be able to consider the costs of putting on on such an immense and useless project.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Why Fukushima made me pro-nuclear

The piece I was working on finally got into the Japan Times today.

The most interesting thing about the process was the back and forth with the editor, mostly over fact-checking and providing links to my claims.  He told me he had to be very careful because of the subject matter.

Of course that is fair enough, and appropriate for an important topic.  I felt like pointing out, however, that if anti-nuclear pieces were half as rigorously vetted I wouldn't have felt the need to write anything at all.

Here is my article.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Know More and Fear Less

Know more and fear less is extremely good advice when it comes to nuclear power, as I have found again and again over the last 16 months.

In Japan however, the motto seems to be Know Less and Fear More.

Nothing illustrates this better than the brouhaha over the last week regarding the 'public hearings' around the country designed to give people a chance to vent about nuclear power.  Crowds hostile to nuclear power have been incensed that people more open-minded have been allowed to speak.  At the Nagoya hearing on Monday one of the speakers (who are chosen by lottery) turned out to be an employee of Chiba Electric Power Company. When he expressed the opinion that the dangers of radiation have been exaggerated and reminded the audience that nobody died in the Fukushima accident, the enraged mob stormed the stage and tore him limb from limb with their bare hands.

Okay that last part wasn't true, but what did happen is that organizers of the meeting received 480 complaints about the speaker's remarks, with widespread criticism of the fact a power company worker had even been given permission to speak.

480 complaints.  That's 480 people who were so upset at being told the truth that they wrote a letter to express their disapproval.  Disaster minister Goshi Hosono was forced to step in and promise that the anti-nuclear sentiment of the crowd would never be threatened by an alternate viewpoint again, saying 'If a power company employee is chosen as speaker, he or she will be replaced by someone else."

Way to go on the stifling of dissent, guys!  These hearing are fast becoming kangaroo courts, where large numbers of ill-informed people express their unfocused rage at things they don't and are unwilling to understand, and where an intense groupthink phenomenon will quite possibly result in the worst possible outcome for Japan as a whole.

I prefer to find out about the science myself.  I must be weird or something.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Japanese protestors flirt with fantasy

Today Japan's electrical power companies held shareholder meetings across the country. TEPCO, the company responsible for the Tokyo region and also the owners of the troubled Fukushima Daiichi plant, held their meeting in a huge hall in Tokyo.  Amongst other things, management passed a proposal to accept a massive injection of funds from the government, to the tune of 1 trillion yen ($12.5 billion) from the government, effectively nationalizing the company.  During the meeting some shareholders heckled the speakers, and outside the TEPCO meeting environmentalist and civic action groups demanded an end to nuclear power in Japan.

One protestor said, "I don't want TEPCO to take taxpayer money and raise electricity rates in order to avoid responsibility for the Fukushima accident', a statement which betrays an extraordinary ignorance of reality - specifically a 100 billion dollar reality, which is the estimated cost of the accident, including dealing with the accident itself, cleanup, contamination, evacuation, compensation and decommissioning.  TEPCO has been charged with paying for much of this.  Which makes one wonder where the protestor thinks the money will come from, if not from the government or increased electricity prices.

And in a massive display of unintended irony, a group of shareholders and their environmentalist allies put forward the motion that the Kashiwazaki nuclear plant in Niigata prefecture be decommissioned and a gas power plant built in its place.  Is it possible to imagine an action that will have a more detrimental effect upon the environment than building a gas-powered plant?  Building a pollution-producing plant that pours massive amounts of CO2 into the atomosphere, and mothballing a building that produces massive amounts of cheap safe power that is CO2 free?

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

My Geiger Counter

I bought this little baby on the weekend at Yodabashi camera, a major electronics store.  It cost about 10,000 yen, $120 or so.  Here's a shot from my living room:

This detector measures radiation in microsieverts per hour.  There's a bit of variation, anything from less than 0.05 (which just reads as 'low') to about 0.2.  These kind of readings are very miniscule, reflecting natural background levels of radiation that are found anywhere in the world.  For example, this measurement above of 0.15 micro/hr works out to 1.3 millisieverts a year, well within background radiation.  Yesterday I went for a walk along the stream near my house and the readings were the same.  On the weekend I'll go up to the park underneath the zoo up the hill from this apartment, and post some readings from there.  I have heard that last year people were concerned at readings from the park, due to 'caesium accumulating on the leaves'.

It looks increasingly likely that at least some nuclear power reactors will be restarted before the summer reaches its peak.  Specifically, reactors at the Oi power station in Fukui prefecture are being targeted for imminent restart in order to prevent power shortages in the huge Kansai region.  It is known that the prime minister supports this move, and today the governor of Fukui prefecture toured the power plant to 'ensure its safety'.  Amongst other things, new diesel generators have been installed on a hillside above the reactor to power cooling systems in the event of a devastating tsunami.  There's that reflective hindsight again: if only the Japanese could turn their technological prowess to the production of time machines!  They could go back in time and save Fukushima!

Speaking of these expensive (and largely redundant) safety measures, a meeting of experts in Fukui on Sunday to present a safety report was interrupted repeatedly by shouting protestors.  The meeting had to be adjurned and reopened in another room, and this time the anti-nuclear activists were prevented from entering.  They responded by denouncing the meeting and complaining loudly that democracy was being subverted when the public was not allowed to attend important meetings.  Oh, well.

Maybe those activists would prefer to have even more deaths caused by unnecessary evacuation.  The Yomiuri Shinbun has reported 573 deaths as 'related' to the disaster.  These were people living in evacuation centers in the days, weeks and months after the nuclear 'crisis'.  In the general chaos of a genuine disaster that killed 20,000 people, many were left in conditions of extreme fatigue, old age and chronic disease without adequate health or nursing care.  Now, a large percentage of these people were elderly, but there is no doubt that many would still be alive today if they had been allowed to stay in their homes.  

As comparison, this is about 10 times the entire death toll from radiation in the Chernoby accident.

If that doesn't make you think the dangers of radiation are exaggerated, I'm not sure what would.

Saturday, June 02, 2012

Earthquakes, risk and the Japanese psyche

The Japanese world is a very dangerous place.  Earthquakes, tsunami, floods, nuclear radiation, tornados, murder, lightning, foreigners, overseas travel, snakes, monkeys, wasps, bears, heatstroke, unemployment, overwork; every night on the news the dangers of some new terror are described in excruciating detail.  The only thing they apparently have no fear of is unintended irony, as statistically Japan is the safest country in the world, with the lowest or close to the lowest levels of crime and premature death (not to mention spontaneous dancing) in the history of humanity.  The real threats to society largely go unnoted: depression, loneliness, alcohol and tobacco, AKB48.

The fear of earthquakes is an excellent example of where the Japanese perception of risk results in a hugely sub-optimal outcome.  The earthquake and tsunami last year affected large areas of Tohoku, especially the prefectures of Ibaraki, Fukushima and Miyagi.  About 20,000 people were killed by the tsunami.  Yet this earthquake was completely unpredicted.  Indeed, the last time an earthquake of this magnitude was recorded in the region was in the 800s, and there are only a few incidents of quakes this size in recorded human history.  Japan is an earthquake-prone country; there will undoubtedly be fatal tremblors in the years to come; yet it is extremely unlikely that another quake of similar magnitude will occur in the near future.  In fact, there probably won't be one of similar size for decades or centuries.

That hasn't stopped the Japanese becoming obsessed with quakes and tsunamis.  Schools practice evacuation drills religiously, and town halls pore obsessively over topographic maps, searching feverishly for escape routes to hilltops that are 20 meters or more above sea level.  Most absurdly of all, areas affected by last year's tsunami have responded with the most extraordinary levels of surreal retrospective wishful thinking: land prices on hilltops have doubled or tripled, while land prices at sea level have dropped by 60% or more.  Meanwhile local governments draft plans to install tsunami-proof structures on rooftops for people to hold onto when forced to the roofs of their buildings.  This is despite the fact that these regions are the only areas in Japan that are safe from tsunami: statistically, they will, in all probability, be safe for about a thousand years.  The immense pressure on the tectonic plates nearby has been relieved for the foreseable future, and geologically it is the safest place in Japan.  In the words of Robin Williams in The World According to Garp,  the whole area has been pre-disastered.

At this point it's worth pointing out the atrocious record of earthquake forecasting.  Neither the Tohoku earthquake or the Kobe earthquake were predicted and both were completely unexpected in terms of ferocity.  Meanwhile, the Tokyo region is constantly brought up as the site of the imminently expected 'Big One'.  The truth is that earthquake prediction is such an inexact science that its success rate is little better than chance.  Put it this way: I'm not losing any sleep over it.

The Japanese are not a people that cope well with the unexpected.  They respond to surprise with yet more emphasis on preparing for what they can predict, regardless of its improbability.  They have yet to learn that flexibility in the face of the unexpected is a more useful attribute than a detailed and idealistic plan for a disaster that will probably never come.  As the Sunscreen Song pragmatically tells us:

The real troubles in your life are apt to be things that never cross your worried mind, the kind that blindside you at 4pm on some idle Tuesday.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Electricity, gas, and Formaldehyde

Unless nuclear reactors in Japan are restarted in the near future, some very large chickens will be coming home to roost this summer. 

The economic impact upon the country is already very significant and will only increase in severity.  News like this announcement of a 4.4-billion-dollar gas deal with an Australian gas exporter probably sounds very good to the gas industry.  It's not so good news, however, for the Japanese public, faced with rising electricity costs, nor for struggling energy-intensive industries, and not very good at all for the global environment being flooded with a massive increase in CO2 emissions.

Even worse, the consequences of this self-enforced nuclear moratorium are not limited to environmental vandalism and high electricity bills.  There is a serious possibility that large areas of Japan will be faced with blackouts come the peak of electricity usage in summer.  Regardless of the expansion of fossil fuel-based electricity generation, the huge amounts of power created by the country's nuclear fleet is just too hard to replace.  As a consequence, 7 of Japan's 9 regions are being requested to meet new power-saving targets this summer to get by.  Most alarmingly the Kansai region with the major cities of Osaka and Kyoto is being asked to reduced household electrical consumption by 15% even though  last year, when similar conservation efforts were in place, household power consumption was reduced by only 4%.  Even then there were reports of elderly people dying from heatstroke when they cut down on or eliminated the use of airconditioning.

They better hope for a cool summer in Kansai.

Meanwhile there was a minor public health scare on the weekend when formaldehyde was found in some of the drinking water in Chiba, Saitama and Gunma prefectures.  Apparently some illegal dumping had been taking place upstream.  Although the level of contamination was under the threshold that could be dangerous to human health, drinking water was cut off in some areas as a precaution. 

Sound familar?  Funny that media interest seems to have died down, though.  There is no mention of the issue in today's Japan Times, let alone in international media.  I guess 'formaldehyde' just doesn't tick the same boxes as 'radiation'.  There's a lesson in the effects of news coverage upon people's perception of risk.

Personally when I see news of this kind I am heartened and reassured: naturally it is regrettable that chemicals get into the water supply, but I would much rather something got in the water and was detected by the authorities, than if something got in and it wasn't.  It tells me that people are doing their job, that public health is taken seriously and that the authorities that are responsible are trustworthy.  Who could not be reassured by that?

Friday, May 11, 2012

Electricity Price to go up!

Today TEPCO officially applied to the government for permission to raise house electricity prices in July by 10.28%.  Given that TEPCO has already received permission to raise prices for business and industry by 30%, it seems probable that this price rise will go ahead.  For the average household, this works out at about 480 yen extra a month.

Do I need to mention that this price rise is completely unnecessary?  TEPCO has stated that the money is needed to fund compensation for victims of the Fukushima accident, and to cover the costs of imported fossil fuels needed to cover the gap in electrical generation left by the closure of all of Japan's nuclear power plants.  However, as radiation around the Fukshima plant never hit levels that could affect human health, it is hard to see what people are being 'compensated' for.  And regarding the import of fossil fuels, there is no excuse for keeping Japan's nuclear fleet idling; all this achieves is to keep billions of dollars of infrastructure unused and thousands of people out of work.

The reason that nuclear power plants remain closed is because of significant (and misguided) public opposition.  But the reality is that, in terms of safety, nothing could be worse than leaving the nuclear power plants turned off, because the inevitable alternative, fossil fuel usage, is incredibly damaging in terms of global warming, air pollution.  Not to mention political destabilization.

It's incredibly disappointing that at time when the Japanese nation is facing such genuine and intractable problems as economic stagnation, demographic decline and political paralysis, that society is obsessing over an accident that, after all, killed or injured noone.

Electricity is an incredibly useful resource, and vital for improving living standards.  To restrict its use for no good reason seems criminal to me.  This applies to the globe as a whole as well as Japan.

Saturday, May 05, 2012

Japan turns off its last nuclear power plant tonight

Tonight Japan has turned off its last remaining running nuclear reactor, at the Tomari plant in Hokkaido.

All of Japan's 54 nuclear reactors are now standing idle.  And while they were switched off as part of regular maintenance schedules, none have been allowed to go back online as the government has come under strong pressure to keep them unused.

Prime Minister Noda has been working to get the first one back online, but there is significant resistance from some local governments; as yet the confrontation is unresolved.

The unnecessary mothballing of Japan's nuclear industry is having serious consequences.  Already, Japan's production of carbon dioxide has significantly risen as a result of using fossil fuels to cover the gap, thus contributing directly to global warming and putting at risk the global environment:

According to the Asahi Shinbun, the Japanese economy suffered its first trade deficit in over three decades as power producers spent billions of dollars on fossil-fuel imports to provide extra generating capacity.  Just as alarming, the coming summer is beginning to look like last summer, with enforced power conservation across the country, night-time factory operation, appeals to the public to conserve power and behind everything the crippling threat of blackouts if demand exceeds supply.

Incredibly, this weekend across the country there have been protests against nuclear power, and celebrating the shutting down of the last reactor.  After over a year of serious reflection and research, it is hard for me to view these protests as anything but demonstrations in support of human stupidity.  To me it is almost literally unbelievable that an accident which hurt or killed nobody could arouse such hatred.

It's an irony that Japan's new citizen-level activist movement is focused on combating something so harmless and beneficial as nuclear power.  And it's regrettable that such things as government paralysis, wasteful expenditure on public works, and Japanese society's penchant for painful and useless effort, all of which might be the targets of a real revolution, remain unaddressed, while people waste their self-righteous anger on something that actually makes the world a better place.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

My first day on the job.

I teach at a university in the Yokohama area.  I started several years ago, but I will never forget the first day and the first class.

"We're interested in someone who has skills in motivating students", I was told in the interview.

"Oh, do you have motivation problems?" I said brightly.  "I think I can deal with that!"

The man interviewing me said nothing.  He just looked down.

My first teaching day was a Thursday, an afternoon.  I had been warned 'not to expect too much'.  But I had worked with students of varying levels of interest before.  How bad could it be?

I walked into the classroom.  It was really what you might call a lecture room, dominated by a huge blackboard at the front.  About 20 students sat in seats, behind desks, towards the back, separated from each other by two or three other chairs.  Nobody was speaking or moving.

"Good afternoon!", I said.

Nothing.  A massive and deafening silence.

I tried again.  "Good afternoon!" Nothing.  I couldn't even detect any movement.  Maybe they were petrified, maybe they were mannequins, I couldn't tell.

I looked at the information I had been given.  Checked the room number.  The class number.

"Um, is this class 254?"

Nothing.  They sat there, looking at me without expression. 

Did I really have the right classroom?  How could this be possible?

I looked at one of the students.  "You!  What subject is this?"

The student looked blankly at me.  Perhaps he wasn't there.  Perhaps I was hallucinating.

"What's your name?" I pointed directly at another of the students, a big no-no in Japan.  But my options were shrinking.


"What's your name?"  I spoke more loudly.

"Matsumoto Shunsuke desu." He spoke in rapid-fire heavily accented Japanese.

I looked at my class roll.  There was a Shunksuke Matsumoto.  My heart sank.  I was in the right place after all.  There would be no escape.

These were students who had all studied English for a minimum of 7 years, often considerably more.  Many had gone to cram schools to 'improve' their English even more, had studied for hundreds of hours to pass university English exams to get here.

I looked at my textbook, which as an introduction to today's lesson suggested I get the students, in groups, to imagine they were travellers in a spaceship going to a new planet and roleplay from there.

It was going to be a long day.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Japan starts to pay the price for curtailing nuclear power

As I write this the Global Conference for a Nuclear Power-Free World, attended by thousands, is coming to a close in central Yokohama, a few kilometres away.  In this context it is worth reflecting upon some to the costs that Japan is starting to incur as a result of choosing to minimise its use of nuclear power now and in the future.

There are now only 5 nuclear power plants in the country currently in operation.  The other 49 have been shut down for maintenance or repairs, either directly after March 11 or in the months since then.  Many of these shutdowns were routine; the problem is that once shut down, no plant has been permitted to start up again.  It is unlikely that many will be allowed to do so without serious public debate.

Without the steady baseload that nuclear power has supplied, the shortfall is being made up with 'thermal' plants, i.e. fossil fuels.  This is already resulting in higher costs of electricity, and the Japan Times reported this weekend that TEPCO is asking permission to raise household rates this March as a direct result.

An even more worrying repercussion of this 'Back to the Future'-style return to dependence on fossil fuels was this week brought to the attention of many when Japan pondered the predicament of being pressured by the U.S. to cut all trading ties with Iran.  The U.S. is determined to pursue trade sanctions against Iran in an attempt to strangle Iran's alleged nuclear weapons program, yet Japan has traditionally had a friendly relationship with the Iranians, and gets 10% of its oil from them.  The Japanese have yet to decide what to do.  Meanwhile Iran is threatening, if provoked, to block the Strait of Hormuz completely, which carries one-fifth of the world's oil supply.

Once you start looking at global issues with the idea that nuclear power is the best possible large-scale power source available, your perception of many problems may change.  Since my conversion to a supporter of nuclear power I have challenged myself to imagine a world that is not dependent for energy supplies from dangerous theocratic nation-states in the Middle East.  An Iran that would have to gain the currency to build nuclear weapons from somewhere other than the pockets of people in other countries who want to heat their house or drive their car.  A world that doesn't need to go to war over oil.  An America that didn't need to invade Iraq.

When I think about this I am also reminded that uranium exploration has yet to be undertaken in many parts of the world, and that two-thirds of currently known reserves, enough to last for many decades, are in Canada and Australia, two mining-friendly democracies that are probably among the most stable and internationally respected nations in the world.