Fukushima ~ Bob’s Notes from Japan #29 ~ May 23rd

Many have asked me about Fukushima. I’m far from an expert here, but I keep picking up pieces of information and perspective that I am happy to share. The way I understand this now is that we actually have three very related and completely separate issues

  1. Restarting the nuclear plants,
  2. Next steps in the Fukushima region for the people who live there,
  3. Spent fuel rods at Daichi #4.

Restarting Nuclear Plants

All the nuclear plants in Japan are currently shut down for inspection. A number of people in Japan are opposed to bringing them back online. Others say it is necessary to bring them back online. Some argue that Japan should learn to live with less energy consumption. Others suggest that restarting the old coal-fired plants and putting solar panels on rice fields no longer in production would produce more than enough energy.

There’s certainly no consensus about what to do. Seasonally, Japan consumes the most energy in the summer months. It’s hot and humid here and the air conditioning costs are enormous. Last year there was a spirit of “we have to work together for recovery.” That spirit is more muted now. Many have “moved on.” There will be power shortages throughout the country and likely, a number of people will be hot and grumpy which will increase the call for restarting the plants. It’s all an open question.

Next Steps for Fukushima Region

I was on the train yesterday traveling through the Fukushima region. Lovely day. Sunny, puffy clouds, green everywhere, rice fields planted and growing. Looking out across the land, it is a beautiful place. So much for first impressions. There’s deep pain and uncertainty in the region. I don’t know the exact number of people who have been displaced from their homes. It’s about 300,000 for the whole disaster area. Fukushima is one of three prefectures hardest hit. To give a sense of magnitude, let’s say there are somewhere between 50,000 and 100,000 living in temporary housing or with relatives.

Many of the elderly just want to go home. They say “we’re going to die anyway, we want to go home.” For the younger generation, there’s a new term: “radiation-divorce.” Many families here are still three generation families. The husband bringing his new wife into his parent’s home. The husband and his family says “we must stay, it is disloyal to leave.” The wives escape, taking the children, and move to the south of Japan or to Okinawa. At train stations and other public spots throughout Tohoku there are radiation meters. People watch them and comment: “more radiation today,” or “much less than yesterday,” but most people don’t really know what the numbers mean.

This is an agriculture region, so people are planting food again. But who will buy it? Is it safe? And what about the fish? No one knows what to do. The future is very, very, cloudy. Huge numbers of people are without jobs, the population is an older one. There’s tremendous grief which is still mostly held inside. At least with the tsunami and earthquake damage there was a place to start — mud can be shoveled, debris removed, land cleared for a possible future. The next step seems almost impossible to find in Fukushima.

Meanwhile, children show signs of radiation poisoning and people try to find a way ahead. In Japanese there’s an expression minikui — hard to look at, hard to see. Outside the region it is hard to look at Fukushima, I notice how my eyes want to slide over it. Inside the region there is no place to hide.

Daichi #4

Some people now refer to it as the most dangerous place on the planet. The most readable and comprehensive article I’ve seen on this comes from www.truthout.org. See http://bit.ly/daichi4 . Without getting into the science of it, Daichi #4 stores “spent” fuel rods which are highly radioactive. The containment system around this waste was severely compromised on 3.11. Many speculate that another earthquake of major size (bigger than the 6.0 quakes which occur with some frequency in the region) will completely break the containment field and release the radiation. Should this happen, it is possible that at least Tokyo and everything to the north would have to be evacuated. Altogether, well over 12,000,000 people.

The mainstream media in Japan, just like the media in the rest of the world is largely quiet about this issue. It’s suggested by many that it is economic pressure that enforces the silence. And there is something more as well. There’s a spirit in Japan of if we can’t do anything then why talk about it? And the truth is, there’s nothing to be done. Japan does not have the technology to fix the containment field. A high level of international cooperation would be required, and as yet there has been no loud outcry for that cooperation. There have been a few demonstrations, but most have actually been demonstrations in opposition to opening the closed nuclear plants, a move visible issue.

I come from Washington State and live 150 miles from the Hanford Nuclear Reservation which now stores much of the nuclear waste from the production of weapons grade plutonium. The atomic bombs dropped on Japan to give a message to Russia at the end of World War II were made there. I spent six years on the Governor’s Nuclear Waste Board back in the nineties. My conclusion after those years is that we simply don’t know what to do with the nuclear waste we’ve created. We don’t know. And it will be with us for 10,000 years.

Nuclear waste is the critical issue. When we speak of nuclear power as the least expensive way to get power, part of the lie is that we don’t know what to do with the waste and it is impossible to calculate the costs. At one point in the 90s, $4-5 Million dollars a day was being spent containing the waste at Hanford and planning for what do to. We were not doing clean-up, just containing and planning. It’s a mess. It’s hard. It can’t be resolved right now. Each of these three separate issues are hard ones. I have no insight into how any of these will be resolved. Meanwhile, the work day-to-day is to figure out how to support people in the region in creating the future they want, with all its uncertainties.

Just as I witnessed people in Zimbabwe getting up every morning and figuring how how to make the day work as Zimbabwe continued to fall apart, I now witness people in Fukushima just getting on with trying to figure out how to live their lives. They could use support and prayer and hope from all of us.

Blessings, Bob.

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