Tonight’s post begins with one more bizarre complication arising from the Fukushima nuclear disaster …are you ready for this? Aaaah….it’s the sewage. In other words, radioactive poop, and lots of it. And what to do with it.
The story begins with rain…enough rain to cause radioactive substances on the ground in Fukushima Prefecture to flow into sewage systems, and straight to the wastewater treatment facilities. The sewage treatment facility in Koriyama City has begun to find an alarmingly high concentration of radioactive cesium in the tons of sludge and molten slag (sewage sludge fired in a furnace) processed daily. The International Herald Tribune reports the level as approximately 1,400 times higher than the level registered before the March 11th quake. WELL. You know how the post office puts trackers on registered letters? The prefectural government of Fukushima is now attempting to track the radioactive sewage sludge, which has been shipped out to various concrete companies. The slag, which is not shipped out, has been covered with plastic sheets and left to sit, for want of a better solution. As the Tribune pointed out, “…there are no guidelines established by the central government for disposing of highly radioactive sewage sludge.” You want some big old chunks of baked radioactive you-know-what? No, I didn’t think so.
Okay, so that’s the poop on sewage. Even sadder, today’s paper reports that the same radioactive cesium has been found in the breast milk of nursing mothers in Fukushima. Many of the women who participated in the study registered negative for radioactive contamination, but the milk of seven out of twenty-three Fukushima mothers registered positive. The short article from the Asahi Shinbun did not feature prominently, and was probably not noticed by most readers. The tone was reassuring, claiming that, “..the health ministry said the milk posed no health risk to infants.” Again, I guess there are no established guidelines for a safe level of radioactive substances in breast milk, so the health ministry can make its pronunciation in all good conscience. We hear nothing from the women who participated in the survey , of course, but their level of anxiety must be steadily rising. Mine certainly is.
And now, for the truly ominous news–again, taken from an article in Monday’s Asahi Shinbun. The article reports that the Chubu Electric Power company is considering re-starting the retired Hamaoka nuclear power plant, to help alleviate the anticipated summer power shortage. The ominous aspect is the plant’s location: atop an active fault along the Shizuoka Prefecture shoreline, the long-predicted site of an earthquake which could devastate the Tokai area. Local governments and residents are already “fiercely opposed” to the re-starting of the reactor, which is described as “the world’s most dangerous” nuclear power plant. The reactor had been temporarily shut down for an inspection before the quake occurred, but had been scheduled to start up again in April; Chubu Electric decided on a temporary delay because of the public’s anxiety after the Fukushima explosion, with plans to re-start in the month of July. Chubu Electric officials now plan to conduct info-sessions to reassure local residents of the plant’s safety, and to build a giant breakwater at least 15 meters high, effective against tsunamis of up to 8.3 meters. Neither the residents not the experts, however, are buying the idea. Kyoto University’s Hiroaki Koide, assistant professor of nuclear engineering, “scoffed at” the proposition, stating baldly that no nuclear reactor comes with a guarantee of safety, and that the Hamaoka plant had already been in a vulnerable position for years. Soooo….the best-case scenario would be an unusually cool summer. If the energy supply is sufficient during the hot summer months, there will be no need to re-start the controversial reactor at all. And the worst-case scenario?? Well, that’s only too easy to imagine now, after seeing lurid videos of the tsunami easily roaring over houses, the mysterious explosions and fires at the Fukushima plant reactors, and the pain on the faces of the victims, up close and personal on digital TV screens.
Speaking of TV dramas, TEPCO officials were seen in Fukushima today, visiting the shelters . Many shelter residents in the prefecture sustained little to no property damage in the disaster; their homes are livable, but for the radiation level. They are living on gymnasium floors as a direct result of the TEPCO officials and the corrupt system that continued to re-liscence the plant despite its vulnerability and inadequate safety standards. TEPCO officials bowed repeatedly and apologized profusely , but many shelter residents responded with angry and impassioned speeches. In the weeks following the quake, they have passed through many emotional stages, and an outrage born of exhaustion seems to have developed. One woman spoke calmly but firmly, asking officials to imagine the pain of losing a beloved family member, but not being allowed to search for the body because of the high radiation level. She was referring to the bodies of countless residents who died or washed up in the area closest to the plant, which have gone unretrieved because of the danger of venturing into the highly radioactive zone. As she spoke, the camera panned the wall of the gym, where photographs of clothing were taped along the wall. This is a last-ditch effort to identify bodies which have recently been found by the Japanese military; together with police, the military men have donned protective suits to finally begin searching the area closest to the crippled reactors , trying to narrow the list of the “lost and missing”. Unfortunately, so much time has passed that most bodies are unrecognizable, and must be identified by their articles of clothing. The TEPCO official could say nothing in response to the woman who still had not found her own husband, and TV viewers have no clue as to what goes on in the hearts and minds of the men who are the face of the disaster and must now bear the scorn, anger, and piercing accusations of the people they have driven from their own homes. It’s not a pretty picture.
On a different note,, I’ve found several intriguing stories on attempts at memorializing the triple disaster. Monday’s Asahi Shinbum reported on the town of Masahiko in Tochigi, known for its traditional pottery wares. The earthquake not only destroyed shelf after shelf of teacups and bowls, but the historic wood-fired brick kilns themselves–forty-five out of fifty–also collapsed. According to the article, potters worked together to clean up the shards and haul them away , depositing them in a giant mound in front of the city hall….and that’s where things began to get interesting. Many younger craftsmen, it seems, wanted to use the shards to create a memorial-some kind of monument or mosaic; others, however, were more concerned with copyrights, and refused to grant permission for their shards to be used in such a project. Koji Susukita, vice chairman of the Masahiko Potter’s Union, explained, “Potters…can spot their own work in a piece as small as a thumbnail.” Finally, the mound was hauled away as industrial waste, with the larger shards further pulverized to prevent them from falling into the hands of “unscrupulous dealers”. Great loss, greater pride, even greater waste, and no memorial in the end.
In another failed memorial attempt, officials of Kamaishi city have decided to demolish, rather than preserve, a 200 ton boat which had come to rest atop a building. I saw the photo in today’s International Herald Tribune: the massive thing lies astride the building smartly, undamaged, amid the bizarre tangle of wreckage below. I realize that technically boats cannot be “astride” anything, lacking legs, but this one certainly seems to be” riding” the building, which is about half its size. Despite the protests of 160 academics, the Mayor of Kamaishi has announced its imminent demolition, citing preservation costs and “concerns that the boat could fall”. Well, yeah. This time I’d say that’s a smart move.
There has been good news this week as well. The government passed the official reconstruction budget -4 trillion yen-unanimously, in record time.
A former president of Tokyo University has a proposal in the works for the installation of solar panels on all future housing for those displaced by the quake and tsunami, and a proposal to make them not only affordable, but profitable for home owners! More on this later if the proposal actually begins to materialize.
The body of Miki Endo, the young woman who announced the incoming tsunami over the city hall speakers repeatedly until she herself was engulfed, was finally found and identified, and her parents had a measure of closure.
Tokyo’s Aoyama University students, concerned that this year’s third-year high school students will be at a disadvantage in the college entrance exams (textbooks, drills, and even cram schools have been washed away), are boxing up study supplies to send to Tohoku. A nightly news special showed the well-dressed students (Aoyama students are VERY well-dressed) painstakingly erasing their own pencilled answers from used drill books, and hand-writing encouraging notes (“Don’t give up! Go to college!”) to send along to the Tohoku students. Personally, I think it would be a wonderful thing to give all Tohoku third-year high school students an extra year to sort out their lives before going through the grueling process of college entrance examinations, but that does not seem likely.
There are, of course, more heartwarming stories, and more heartbreaking ones as well. We have yet to hear the next chapter of the Fukushima farmers, their long-suffering livestock, and their unsold produce. I’m sure that next week will bring new developments, so stay tuned.