Jaw-Dropping News, and Praise for Mickey

Stranded visitors at  Tokyo Disneyland

When Wednesday’s International Herald Tribune front page declared, “Disaster Overturns Japan’s Nuclear Program!” , my jaw dropped in wonder and surprise. I had not expected so much so fast, especially when the news thus far had been couched in polite and indefinite terminology. The English language newspapers had earlier reported that Prime Minister Naoto Kan had “requested” that operations be suspended at the Hamaoka Nuclear Power Plant (in Shizuoka prefecture, where experts predict a 90 percent chance of a major quake of around magnitude 8 within the next thirty years) , and that the Chubu Electric Power Company was “considering” the request. Yet in spite of the verb choice “requested” rather than “ordered”, news reports seemed to take Kan’s words seriously, and were giving them a lot of press attention. Then….low and behold, the Wednesday headline, and an announcement that the Chubu Electric Power Company (known as CEPCO) had “agreed” to Kan’s “request” , and would begin preparations to decommission two reactors and suspend operations at the remaining three, despite an anticipated deficit between supply and demand during the summer months. “Although it is a request, it carries the weight close to an order,” was the English translation of a senior official at CEPCO, who probably had more to say, but restrained himself admirably.

Follow-up articles added more details, describing the CEPCO officials as “scratching their heads and rolling their eyes” as they reluctantly considered Kan’s “request with the weight close to an order”.  After all,  the Prime Minister and his predecessors had been in their camp for decades, and despite the horrific damages (the extent of which will not be known in full for years to come), apparently CEPCO assumed that the Hamaoka plant would continue to retain its “protected status” for years to come. As Martin Fackler of the Asahi Shinbun reports, ” While the plant has faced years of lawsuits seeking its suspension because of its precarious location, compliant courts have consistently ruled in the industry’s favor. ”  Katsuhiko Ishibashi, a seismologist and nuclear safety expert at Kobe University, recently stated that nuclear power plants have long been treated as  “sacred territory”, supported and protected by the cooperative efforts of the government, the industry itself, and its regulators. Prime Minister Kan’s “abrupt” (in CEPCO officials’ words) request came as a slap in the face to an industry which has long been “entrenched and coddled” ( Martin Fackler’s words) by the government up until the very day of the quake.

And then, as CEPCO officials had feared, came the Domino Effect: yesterday’s paper (only three days later) reported that “Municipalities in Japan that are home to nuclear power plants are now so nervous about potential accidents that 42 of the 54 reactors in the country could be offline during the peak electricity demand period this sumer.” (Asahi Shinbun).  Forty-two out of fifty-four?!  And the process is beginning already: Fukui prefecture, with 13 nuclear plants, has already suspended operations at six while they are under inspection, and will halt three others in July.  Fourteen reactors across the country have been shut down for inspections this week, with six more scheduled for inspection in July; fifteen plants in the Tohoku area have already been shut down due to damages from the quake and tsunami. Local government officials from North to South, East to West,  are now expressing concerns about the safety of the nuclear power plants that they have lived in close proximity to for decades; the Prime Minister’s sudden decision to take a stand against the Hamaoka plant has been the catalyst for a chain reaction that has all the possibilities for a revolutionary new beginning.

It is important to note that the concept of a new beginning is only a “possibility” at present.  Japan’s eggs have all been in one basket up until this point, and as Micheal Austin, director of Japan studies at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington stated in Wednesday’s Herald Tribune, “The old way of doing things has broken down, but there is not yet a new way to take its place.” Japan is now universally wary of nuclear power, and has taken to first steps toward changing its energy policy, but the process of investigating, financing, and implementing a new major policy has not yet begun. Prime Minister Kan intends to “start from scratch”, which is both exciting and and terrifying (as is anything which carries the potential of large-scale failure).  The excitement is country-wide, as families follow the NHK nightly news , which has been extended since the quake, to focus specifically on the challenges faced by the Tohoku region.  This week’s special programming featured in-depth presentations of different sources of alternative energy: Thursday featured wind power in Denmark, and Friday featured geo-thermal power in New Zealand. I was astonished to learn that there is not a single nuclear reactor in the entire country of New Zealand, and also that Japan’s geo-thermal resources are ranked third in the world, yet are almost completely untapped!  Anti-nuclear protesters have been marching in Tokyo for the past two weekends (I must check Twitter, and see if they’re about today), and people are talking about solar panels and investigating the power of volcanic hot springs. Most exciting of all, while the government is strapped financially and TEPCO’s resources are being stretched to the breaking point, the wealthy entrepeneurs of Japan are stepping up to bat!  Whew!  About time!  Masayoshi Sun ( founder of Softbank, and officially the richest man in the country) has promised to donate $12 million to start a research foundation for renewable energy, stating that continued reliance on nuclear power would be, “…a sin against out children, grandchildren, and future generations.” Strong words,  but the country is ready to hear them. As Nassrine Azimi wrote in Wednesday’s NY Times editorial, “The Fukushima disaster has become an existential moment for Japan. None of its energy options are easy-but at least the country will face the challenge with the gravity it deserves.”

Lastly, a brief update on the situation in Fukushima, and a story from Tokyo’s Disneyland, which the government would do well to use as a model for future disaster preparedness programs.

The news this week from Fukushima prefecture was bleaker than ever. Residents from Kawauchi village (within the 20 kilometer radius of the evacuation zone) were allowed to return home for a two hour visit on Tuesday, leading to frustration and sadness, rather than relief.  Abandoned cows running wild had broken into sheds and caused havoc, household pets were dead, and residents- dressed in bulky white radiation protective gear equipped with walkie-talkies and dosimeters- scrambled to clean their houses, and to find items of clothing and photo albums before the time limit ran out and the bus left to return to the shelter where they have been setting up housekeeping.

The timeline for the shutdown of the reactors at Fukushima is being revised, after a chilling discovery that spent fuel rods have melted down and apparently burned a hole in the bottom of the Number One reactor, causing unknown amounts of radioactive water to leak…presumably into the ocean, though TEPCO claims to be “unclear” about where the water is actually going. It is likely that there are leaks in two other reactors as well, though the high radiation level makes it difficult for workers to check the site and make a proper assessment.

Students in the Shoyo Middle School, in Date City ( 60 kilometers northwest of the crippled power plant) attend class wearing masks, caps, and long sleeve shirts; a recent measure of the school’s radiation level revealed that “their exposure to radiation is on pace to equal annual limits for workers in the nuclear power industry” (Bloomberg News, Thursday).  Female faculty and students are banned from wearing skirts due to “radiation concerns”.  Elementary and Nursery Schools in Date are continuing to scrape off the top level of soil on their playgrounds, and covering it temporarily with plastic sheets.

TEPCO has unveiled a plan to eventually cover the entire crippled power plant with polyester sheeting, creating a giant “canopy” supported by steel beams to prevent further leakage of radiation. It will be an eyesore, and a shameful sight.

But now, let’s move South, to Tokyo’s Disneyland (which is actually located in Chiba prefecture, the southernmost coastal area to sustain major damage from the quake and tsunami).  In the days following March 11th, NHK viewers were horrified at the videos broadcast from the the wildly popular theme park, which showed the sidewalks cracking open and great yawning gulfs appearing before the eyes of terrified families. As they backed away in horror, water began gushing up through the cracks, and within hours, much of the park was flooded.  But that’s not the real story…

The real story is how the Disney staff responded to the disaster, and it’s one worth telling. According to my friend Junko (she is in the know about theme parks), Disney holds rotating disaster preparations drills every two days,  so that every area of the vast grounds is constantly reminded to stay alert and keep in practice.  Disney has always taken the potential for natural disaster seriously, and felt a deep responsibility toward its staggeringly high number of visitors; they proved their capability and efficiency on March 11th, and those who happened to be in Mickey’s Kingdom on that day will not forget the swift response and kindness of the Disney staff.

One of my English students, a fourth grader named Mayu, happened to be there. It was a school day, but her parents had taken her out of class for a day trip that was a family celebration for her older sister who had just gotten into the high school of her choice. When the quake hit, of course the smallest children panicked, and screams and cries rang out through the park as people struggled to keep their balance and take in what was happening.  Disney staff in the stores and shops remained calm, and rushed to comfort children as they took cover;  as the trembling subsided,  staff began emptying the shelves of stuffed animals and trinkets to help calm howling babies and mothers with jangled nerves. It had begun to rain, and raincoats were immediately given out free of charge to children. When the supply ran out, Hello Kitty gift bags were used, with holes cut out for the arms.  Visitors (over 30,000 at Disney Sea) were then rounded up into a safe, dry, central area, given food and “disposable heaters” to stay warm, and encouraged to remain within the park for their own safety. Near midnight, when trains began running again, visitors were allowed to leave, but many spent the night camped out on the grounds. Disney attendants cooked and served breakfast for them the next morning.  I asked Mayu, “Did you sleep at Disneyland? Did you stay at a hotel?”, but she wasn’t able to say, and I didn’t want to press the issue. “Well…it was like a hotel…” she said hesitantly, but did not want to talk further. The following day, Disney opened up its hotels for free, as did other area resorts, and kept them open that week for the use of local residents as well.  In the end, the Disney complex was able to report no deaths or significant injuries, and to know that years of disaster preparation training had paid off.  They prepared for the absolute worst, met disaster cooly and efficiently, and provided a model for the rest of the nation.  Mayu does not want to talk about her experience, and probably will not for some time.  I think of the fear she must have experienced, and breathe a sigh of relief that she and her family made it back to Hadano safe and sound.  Though I’ve never been a big Disney fan, and have not once visited Disneyland in all my years here, I may now be one of Mickey’s biggest fans. Nice going, Disney.

2 thoughts on “Jaw-Dropping News, and Praise for Mickey

  1. As an adult watching the Disney company and the choices it’s made, my affection for them has waned. I do know from when my cousin worked for them in Orlando, that customer service is EVERYTHING. So I can see that they would have anticipated disaster problems at the Japan location. I’m so glad they acted with kindness and compassion and no thought on bottom line. I’m with you this time, Ruthie – yeah Mickey! As for the other news, how terrifying and wonderful at the same time to be on the cusp of such major change. Maybe the rest of the world can take a lesson without having to go through the disaster…

  2. The parallel between Japan’s thirst for nuclear power seems to echo the US’s thirst for oil. Will we ever change? Prices go up and there is a tick in concern and change, but then prices go down and things seem to return to as they were. What will it take? Are the oil wars not enough?

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