I promised to write up a report in response to a question put up by Bianchigirll on another forum/thread. She asked about how things are going in Japan these days.
The foremost and most immediate thing are the nuclear plants around the country. Many of them are vulnerable to seismic activity in one way or another. At the moment, all of them are shut down for inspections and re-certification. Local area hosts of these plants may interfere with their reopening. Local governments have been digging their heels in, despite the threat of power shortages this summer. The fact that they are not on-line and producing power is a relief to millions in the wake of TEPCO’s Daiichi Fukushima plant disaster, which continues to plague and distress the country. But there is something that millions of Japanese have not considered:
Just because these 53? plants are not producing power does not make them safe. They still are heaving with fuel, which either spent or under control must be cooled for years. If the plants are not working — if the owners go bankrupt — the public is left with a burden of paying for decommissioning. The price-tag would be so staggeringly high as to boggle the imagination in regards to how Japan would pay for it. And … all the while they sit in a threatening state in much the same way as if they were actually producing power. I may get flamed and called down for this comment, but that is my take on the matter. And it is not original thought! Many of these plants lie on or near seismic faults. And many are vulnerable to tsunami. If you loose power to cool the fuel in the event of a seismic disaster, you can have a repeat of Daiichi Fukushima.
As for Daiichi Fukushima: it remains extremely dangerous, unstable. It is flummoxing the best efforts put forward to date. Despite all the BS from Tokyo about ‘cold shut-down’ and other nonsense, the engineers have had to admit that they really do not know what is going on with the melted cores. They do not know how much the environment is being contaminated — that is how much if any coolant is leaking through the last remaining centimeters of concrete below the actual reactor vessels. What they do know is that a lot of coolant is going in, and not enough is coming out. Some weeks ago it was discovered that one reactor had a great deal less coolant in it than had been calculated. They have some photos and some data, but instruments fail fairly soon after they feed them into the highly radioactive areas.
And that is not the worst part. The pool containing over 1,500 sent fuel rods that sits above the shattered reactor #4 is damaged and very unstable. The Daiichi plant sits very close to a major fault line. If the highly predicted great Kanto quake occurs under Tokyo Bay before they can figure out what to do with the problem, a catastrophe could occur that could make Japan a failed state, and the world a very much more contaminated place than Chernobyl ever managed to be — now, or it’s its own uncertain future.
A crane actually fell into the pool in the course of the explosion that occurred days after 3/11. The reactor building itself is sitting on jacks! The pool may be cracked. It could topple to the ground and spill the fuel, which could catch fire if not cooled in short order. The big question is: how could it be controlled if indeed the worst did happen? Equipment and personnel could not get near it! The entire plant is still rigged up in emergency mode. In mid-winter, a maze of plastic pipes leaked and spilled only because ambient outside air temperature fell below freezing.
If you want to read about just how dangerous the situation is to Japan, and to the world, here are some links:
And here is a sobering headline:
Asahi TV: “Unbelievable” — If Unit 4 pool gets a crack from quake and leaks, it would be end for Tokyo -Expert — Doesn’t have to be large tremor, already shaken many times (VIDEO)
And here is some history to the handling of the situation in the first days here. The effects of this part of the nuclear horror story as related by Prof Koide continues to be of concern. A tragic alteration of an entire way of life for of a rural population will remain a part of regional life for decades. In the meantime, local leaders try their best to keep communities together — somehow.
Moving on: the country is trying to cope with contamination. Everyone here is aware that a large part of the country has been affected by at least some contamination. Areas in a radius around the plant are obviously seriously affected, and the government has been trying to clean up. They are encouraging people to return to some places that they claim are safe. Some scientific opinion considers this to be wrong and dangerous. Many locals — especially those with young children agree. Still, as the bans on some places are lifted, some people are returning. Personally, I consider Fukushima City, which is well outside any exclusion zone, to be unsafe due to so-called “hotspots” — places where material fell out in concentration. I have Japanese family relations living there.
Everyone is aware that some food supplies are riskier than others. Public distrust is rife. Each individual or family has their own idea of what to do about the situation — somewhere between very strict, self-imposed guidelines, to just abandoning oneself to fate. Certain fish are suspect. Seaweed. Shellfish. People are buying foods on-line that have been tested by conscientious suppliers. In fact, an alternate food supply industry is being created by demand from concerned individuals and home-makers. Some people are trying to avoid milk that is produced in specific areas, but doubts remain because of relabeling. The dairy industry has known outrageous scandals in past decades. My family has a two year supply of rice from an earlier harvest, but many people are going to consume some rice that will conform to a government limit of contamination that is considered “safe”. I do not think that anyone can argue against the idea that the government reacted too slowly and without enough rigour. Even a tame press printed the news that in one region, contaminated rice had been relabeled and served out in school lunches. In Tokyo, a stiff reaction came down to street level on the part of some concerned mothers. Groups have been formed to gain public and government attention. And school lunches have been surreptitiously lifted away by parents who have wanted the contents analyzed.
Recently, government limits on food contamination have been stiffened by recent revisions. But it is still discomforting when one goes to the market to feed the family. Public trust is very low to non-existant, but most people feel that they have few options but to accept the situation and take some basic precautions. I ask questions — addressed to myself — all the time. The run-off from the snowpack is finishing. What is the condition of the water supply? The pollens have been blowing out of the forests, and we all know that they contain radioactive products that fell out into forested areas on the mountains as the plume was carried east into the country and ending up in places where one might have assumed it was rather safe. How much are we really ingesting?
We in the north are never far from the reminders of the devastation of the coastline. Every kilometer, from Chiba prefecture in the South, to much of Aomori in the north remains scarred or totally scoured. Scattered mountains of collected rubble mark each city, town or village. Hundreds of miles of rail for freight and transit have not been rebuilt. And from what Japan Rail East has said, it may not be rebuilt in the future. This leaves hundreds of villages and towns without vital arterials and communications they have depended on since Japan's entry into the modern era. The national highway (not an expressway) going north is clogged with lorries. Busses are connecting towns and cities. Some families are leaving. But, many of the older people are staying. A depopulation of the coast is almost certain, and it will exacerbate situations where even before the triple disasters, a living income for many was a rather marginal affair.
A tremendously stoic and brave spirit remains, but progress at rebuilding is slow. Local employment is a problem. The local fisheries and connected industries were largely wiped out. Much of the redevelopment may have to be bootstrapped by local initiative. This has been the pattern of things after disasters going back in history. The north of Japan produces only a fraction of Japan’s GDP. The federal government is already distracted by other affairs, and yet as one watches large sums go out to various Japanese foreign aid projects, a boggling question arises: why in the current state of affairs does Tokyo not do more to pry this situation up a notch or two at home. There are other things too, but I cannot do them justice here. I won’t even try to get into the bogus projects that have been tendered and handed out to the usual suspects!
Then there is the strictly human story of the enormous loss of life up and down the coast. Everyone knows someone, or is related to someone who was lost or was connected to a loss. Some of my students were right in the middle of tragedy — losing homes, friends, relatives. Last week I finally got an Email from a woman I’ve worried over for a year and some months. She was swept up by the waves, but somehow managed to survive and get back to her two children.
Some reflections on the human story a year after the tsunami can be found in my article published on-line at Discover Nikkei. Some photos of mine are there too.
The situation in Japan is very difficult to write about. It is complicated and often seemingly contradictory as one line of thought crosses over another. It is very hard to come to terms with the enormity of the whole affair — at least when you are this close to it. To most of the world it is a news event that has past, and the world moves on. But here it is a poignant story that continues daily. Even here in Sendai — past the places where the shoreline and kilometers of human habitation were blasted and swept away — in the city center that was safe from the sea, building after building is scaffolded. A year later, repairs are still under way. Spaces appear where buildings have been deemed too damaged to repair. Many ceramic tile roofs all over the city are still covered with plastic where they have been broken. A friend’s new house tilts downhill, and no one knows what the future will bring to a whole neighborhood built on a terraced hillside. Many of us homeowners have cracked walls and splits in our foundations. But we are the lucky ones.
Life resumes its rhythms and customs. People continue to follow their communal habits, the ways and traditions that are still held dear in the north. I visited the children’s center at a temporary housing project some weeks ago. After some raucous play, 50 or so youngsters settled down to do their homework under the helpful care of volunteers — some of them my students. This last Saturday, there was the Aoba festival here in Sendai. The central arcades were filled with the sounds of drums and shakuhachi flutes. With them were susume* dancers of all ages — from tiny tots to grandmothers. It was very moving, and I recalled — indeed I really grasped for the first time — a story that the late Prof. Joseph Campbell used to tell:
Many years ago, during an inter-faith conference in Kyoto, a man was talking to a Buddhist monk. The man said that he had read many of the texts pertaining to Buddhism, but he couldn’t find much religion in them. The monk’s answer was, “We dance”. **
* Susume dancing — or as it was charmingly described to me, ‘bird dancing’. The festival dancing celebrates the return of the sparrows and swallows. Neighborhoods usually organize under the auspices of the local Shinto shrine and neighborhood committees. They practice and rehearse. The costumes are colorful. Each group has a banner, a distinctive name and a different costume. Indeed, last week I watched the sparrows pecking away in our garden.
** I believe that he was not referring to Buddhism as much as he was explaining what the people do in their culture.