lunes, 31 de octubre de 2011

Ground Zero: Fukushima

The coastal road from Sendai Port to Soma was in relatively good condition, considering. It, however, was deserted. Dotting the countryside, overgrown fields littered with upturned boats and other debri were framed by neat rows of foundations to homes since swept away by the tsunami. Their concrete interiors had filled with yesterday's rain, mirroring the heavens - a graveyard stretched over a desolate horizon. To think, only several months ago thousands lived here. How many died in the tsunami? Where did the survivors go? As I began to approach Soma city limits, a road block diverted traffic inland. With the dramatic elevation change, Japan's mountains come just shy of the sea, returned civilization. Like a line drawn in the sand, wasteland became fresh tilled fields. In the township of Soma, barely 30 km from Daiichi, the city appeared more or less unaffected; yet there was something amiss. For one, I didn't see any children. Another look at the farms around me, which produce rice, green onions, and a variety of vegetables, and I couldn't help but to think, are they really safe to eat?

In my usual reconnaisance of the city park for a place to camp, I found myself sitting on the granite steps of a Shinto shrine, enjoying the sunset with a cup of green tea, when I had three consecutive visitors. The first was a small white tomcat that took an immediate liking to me. The second was a feline of identical coloring, who remained rather aloof. The third was a traveler, a young man from Tokyo by the name of Ogawa Hirotaka. Ogawa was dressed in a kaki onesy with shin-high black rubber boots; he looked very much the tsunami volunteer. As a matter of fact, Ogawa had just completed a week of volunteer work on the northern coast of Miyagi prefecture and had decided to rent a car and drive to Minami Soma to have a look for himself at the village described by Japan's mainstream media as Fukushima's Ground Zero. "Weren't you afraid of radiation?" I asked him. "No, I did my research first," he replied. Ogawa explained to me what he learned about nuclear radiation and the current state of contamination to the environment in Fukushima. Statistically speaking, the chance of contracting cancer from low doses of radiation is extremely unlikely and Ogawa found online readings that put him at ease about his planned to trip to the area. Ogawa was more concerned for the people who suffered the tsunami's destructive wrath, especially those who didn't have the means to evacuate. There were tears in his eyes as Ogawa related to me a story as it was confided to him by a survivor from Minami Soma who had lost his mother in the deluge following the quake. For one month the man looked for her corpse, answering every call for body identification during that time. He must have seen 400 corpses until he finally located the one that belonged to his departed mother. The body had been found inside the Daiichi evacuation zone and its removal for burial was restricted. The incident caused him so much grief and anger that he physically assaulted the reporting official. It's been over six months and every moment of darkened solace returns to his mind's eye the haunting images of mangled bodies and deteriorated faces he was forced to bare witness in the search for his mother's body. In realizing Ogawa's portrait, I imagined the horror that poor lady must have felt, caught like the helpless skiff in Hukusi's Great Wave.

The road from Minami Soma to Fukushima City is stunning beautiful; radiation however, is invisible. It was mid afternoon and the hotter part of the day had already passed; rays of light filtered yellow through a canopy of pine. Along the roadway the ubiquitous chestnut and persimmon trees of a Japanese Autumn tempted me with their succulent fruit. The chestnuts had ripened on the tree, their seeds protruding from their thorny casks. The persimmons, red and orange, bursting through their skins with sugary pulp, had already begun to fall to the ground, wasted. How I would have loved to eat just one of those delicious fruit; but the words of Dr. Kodama rang in my ears:

"When a vast amount of radioactive materials is released, they are in particles. Dispersion of particles is non-linear, and it's one of the most difficult calculations in the fluid dynamics. The nuclear fuel is like sands buried in synthetic resin, but once the fuel melts down, a large amount of super-fine particles is released."

I imagined everything covered with a thin layer of radioactive cesium dust. Cesium-137 is just one of the many products created when uranium and plutonium absorb neutrons and undergo fission, such as in nuclear reactors or weapons alike. It is this particular isotope that has been the principle pollutant of Daiichi, according to Dr. Yamazaki of Tohoku University. Cesium-137 is a soft, malleable, silvery white metal and unique among metals, it is liquid near room temperature. Because of its chemical properties it makes clean up extremely difficult. Exposure can be external by way of the gamma rays released in decay or internal, to be ingested inadvertently through food, water, or dust. I recalled this last fact when riding over a rough patch of road, a passing car kicked up a dust cloud just ahead of me. I held my breath as long i could, but I was forced to breath some of it in. All my readings this past week about radiation came to the forefront of my mind, taunting me, as I made my way through Fukushima's Danger Zone. In an article written by Dr. Bernard Cohen of Pittsburgh University, I learned that subatomic particles travel at or near the velocity of light, 186,000 miles per second. They can penetrate the human body, damage biological cells, initiate cancer and in some cases, if they strike sex cells, they can cause genetic diseases in progeny. Cohen is careful to note that the chances of contracting cancer from radiation is remote, but this area has been reported to be heavily contaminated and as I bicycled past the city of Iatate, I could see for myself that it was completely abandoned. Homes and business were boarded up, driveways were chained shut, and fields and green houses completely overgrown. Iatate is 40 km from Daiichi and it has been reported that traces of plutonium was recently discovered here (a possible indicator that there was in fact a breach of the reactor's containment vessel?). Irrespective of the validity of Dr. Yamasaki's theory that clay does indeed absorb and retain radioactive cesium, there is no clay on the persimmons, nor in the dust in the road, nor on the leaves of the forest.

Having arrived in Fukushima City, I decided to visit the prefectural government offices in order to learn more about what the government is doing to protect it's citizens from exposure. As I entered the offices of the Department of Food Safety I was greeted by a man in a button-up shirt and nondescript tie. He had a round clean-shaven face and he was bald on top. I should perhaps describe my own appearance, which I haven't commented upon since my first post. It has in fact little altered in the past 2 months. Quite contrary to the well groomed bureaucrats, I am never cleanly shaven; yet, I did my best to look presentable. My torn black t-shirt was hidden beneath a vintage checkered-green button-up. In turn, only the collar of the aforementioned threadbare shirt was visible under a kaki orange and brown-striped sweater that had only a minor stain or two. Unfortunately, I do not own a pair of pants at the moment, otherwise I would have worn them. I had to make due instead with my bike shorts, a pair of black short-shorts with white racing stripes, which illintentionally showcase my lank white and hairy legs, further pronounced by rainbow-striped above-the-ancle socks. A slight improvement at the base, my clipless cycling shoes are black and relatively new looking. The fact that I have been so well received in this country despite my dire appearance speaks volumes of Japanese hospitality. I removed the pink trucker's hat from my head and I explained to my contrastingly well-dressed host that I am a blogger investigating the Daiichi disaster and have a few questions about food contamination. The offices of food safety is but a single large room with a low ceiling and it is jammed packed full of desks, manned by an army of suits. My host bid me wait as he made his way to the front of the room to speak with who appeared the captain of the ship, a heavy set man, who's desk is situated at the helm, larger and with a commanding view of his men. I was ushered to a seat at a wooden table where I was greeted by man of remarkably calm disposition by the name of Kenichi Kanezawa. He addressed me in Japanese. "Sumimasen, Nihongowa, wakarimasen," I responded. It is one of the most important phrases I've learned during my stay in Japan: "I'm sorry, I don't speak Japanese". He made a phone call and we were soon joined by an interpreter from the offices of International Relations, a serious looking lady of middle age, bespectacled and in a blue suit. Agent Kenichi explained to me through the interpreter that, with the exception of the fishing industry, all restrictions on food from Fukushima prefecture have been lifted; that is not to say that everything that enters the market is not monitored first to ensure its safety for human consumption. The government has in place regulations as to the allowable levels of radiation deemed safe, which vary depending on the food product. For example, drinking water and milk is set at a limit of 200 becquerel; for rice, as much as 500 becquerel. Initially, the government employed private industry to conduct tests, but the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries has since acquired the necessary equipment that testing may now be conducted from within the department itself. It is the responsibility of producers to acquire the necessary checks from the government. There are several areas in Fukushima prefecture that the production, or consumption for that matter, of food and water is restricted. Drinking water in several townships has been found to be dangerously contaminated, at which time the government suspended supply and distributed bottled water in its place, until levels were shown to have decreased to a safe standard. In certain cases, when food products, such as milk, chestnuts, and spinach, showed to be contaminated with radioactive isotopes, such as cesium-137. Those particular goods were sealed in plastic and restrictions were imposed on the land from which they were came. Monitoring is done by way of sampling. Agent Kanezawa was confident that everything on the market today is completely safe. I however was not convinced. I wanted to know specifics on the monitoring process. Is there a certification program - some kind of proof a particular company has undergone necessary testing? Or is there some other method to guarantee that all producers, large and small, obtain the necessary tests that ensure the safety of their product? Most importantly, is sampling really sufficient? If Dr. Kodama is correct in his assertion that contamination of radioactive particles is "non-linnear" and subject to arbitrary patterns of wind and rain, then sampling is surely not an effective measure. Alas, my questions went unanswered. Either the agent at Food Safety did not know the answer to my questions or the interpreter had lost patience. I expect the latter was the case. "You did not make an appointment. This is highly irregular", she repeated several times before finally cutting our interview short. I thought to go to the department of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries, but I worried the same interpreter might again be called to translate and I did not wish to go back in the ring with her a second round. I decided instead to throw in the proverbial towel and move along to my next destination; I still had a teacher to visit in the city of Koriyama, some 50 km from Fukushima City.

I first heard about Kiyoshi Sasaki in an article published in the online English addition of, entitled, "In Fukushima, students face up to realities of nuclear disaster". At a time when Japan's central government withholds information deemed "inconvenient" or liable to spread panic, Mr. Sasaki has opted for an altogether different approach of honesty with his junior high school science class. I was touched by the story of a teacher who was discussing radiation candidly with his students and has taken the initiative to introduce monitoring equipment to his extracurricular Club of Natural Science, having students test soil from their community and analyze the data for themselves. I arrived to the campus of Meiken Junior High late afternoon, just as classes had begun to let out. Situated on a picturesque lake, students in blue uniform spilled out of the imposing and ultramodern complex of their school and onto the small walking paths that contour the lake, before splintering off into the surrounding residential neighborhood. The teachers' offices are located in a single large glass-walled room at the main entrance to the school. In my usual nonchalance, I strolled right in and asked to speak with Mr. Sasaki. After some commotion, the English teacher, a young man by the name of Yoshiro Fukasaku, being the only individual in the room capable of communicating with me, was procured. I explained to him the nature of my visit and he in turn offered me a seat and a cup of coffee while I waited on Mr. Sasaki, who was engaged in a parent-teacher conference. The day's typhoon rains had me drenched and I took advantage of the delay to regain my composure as I sat dripping on the carpeted floors. Shortly thereafter, Mr. Sasaki joined us at the table and Mr. Fukasaku, agreed to act as interpreter. Mr. Sasaki was thrilled I had sough him out after seeing his name mentioned in a newspaper article and responded to my interview with great enthusiasm. What was life like for a junior high school science teacher in Fukushima in the days following the Great East Japan Earthquake? Firstly, School was suspended for a week. The destruction reaped by the tsunami was dreadful and the explosions at the nuclear power plant in Daiichi left the people of Fukushima in a state of suspense, as they didn't know what the future would hold. For many, the incident sparked horrifying recollections of images of the Atomic-bomb ravaged cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the history of which is etched in the collective memory of Japanese people everywhere. Everyone was glued to their television set, waiting, hoping for answers; answers that were slow in coming. Mr. Sasaki began his own investigation. One of his principle sources for information came from a professor Nakagawa Kayichi of Tokyo University, who was disseminating information about radiation through Twitter. Beginning in April, Mr. Sasaki began commuting to Tokyo to attend radiation conferences for teachers, hosted by the University of Tokyo. When school resumed its normal schedule, children were prohibited from going outside for recess. Long sleeves, caps, and respirator masks became de rigueur and children were refused on the bus unless they were dressed accordingly. Understandably, the children were in a state of confusion and many had questions for their science teacher about radiation. Roughly 60% of them chose radiation as the subject for their summer report. Today the stringent precautions have been eased somewhat. The students are no longer required to don hazmat apparel, but the city of Koriyama still has in place a three-hour limit as to the permissible time children may remain outdoors. Furthermore, starting that very day, the 5th of October, the city of Koriyama initiated a program, in which students were equipped with special radiation monitoring devises to be worn around their neck for a period of one month. The readings will be sent to the Board of Education, which will determine the safety of the schools within its precinct. After completing my interview with Mr. Sasaki I went outside to where my bike was parked to find a group of children waiting for me. Compared with the shyness exhibited by their superiors, when addressing me the students did not hesitate and they were eager to practice the English they had been taught by Mr. Nakagawa. They showed me their monitoring devises and whatever anxiety they may have had in the days immediately proceeding the quake, at present, they seemed generally unconcerned. Only two in a group of 10 admitted fear of unseen radiation. Regardless, they quickly changed the subject. The children preferred conversation related to sports and other such things and they were duly impressed with how far I had ridden my bicycle and they thoroughly enjoyed seeing the drawings in my sketchbook. When they learned that I was to sleep at a gazebo in the lakeside park that rainy night, two among them called their parents to ask if they could invite me for a "sleepover". Both sets of parents declined, but Mr. Nakagawa graciously invited me to spend the evening with his family in their small downtown flat. In the morning, I thought I might join Mr. Nakagawa's English class to lead the day's conversation, a simple contribution that could prove invaluable to the students. Mr. Nakagawa proposed the idea to the principle, but it was promptly rejected, on the grounds that school policy doesn't allow any diversion from the curriculum. I am certain that in Japan there is no equivalent to the English expression "sometimes it's best to ask forgiveness later than permission first".

2 comentarios:

  1. Thanks for this post, I had a good chuckle imagining you in your short-shorts...

    Honestly, I don't think I would have normally made any government-bashing responses to this post, but you egged me on over Skype yesterday, so yeah, I'll bite...

    You simply cannot trust the government to tell you what's safe. Obviously, we're talking about radiation poisoning here but it applies to anything -- food safety, drug safety, consumer-product safety, etc, etc. You know who I would trust to tell me what's safe? Someone I pay, with my own money, to analyze safety. Yes, that's right, that "evil" enterprise known as capitalism is absolutely our best friend when it comes to keeping us safe. Really, the implication is that the free-er you are, the safer you are.

    At this point, the socialists have their panties all bunched up. Here it comes, I know what they're thinking: "but what you're suggesting is that safety should only be available to those who can afford it, and that's just wrong!". Well, yes, to some extent, saftey IS a consumer product. That is, those who are wealthier can afford more "saftey" products. Realistically speaking, if every consumer product available to you at, say, walmart had to be as safe as the very best in it's category, only rich people would be able to afford to buy anything. All bikes would be $1000+. All food would be organic, heirloom, individually packaged. All rope would be military grade. All sneakers would cost $150 a pair.

    But back on topic: why is it that government is incapable of keeping us safe? Let's talk scientists. In some cases, we find that scientists gain promotions when they take a stance that is extreme, even whistle-blowing. Such a scientist doesn't have to be right, he just has to be loud enough to garner attention. In other cases, we find that scientists are manipulated by corporate interests in order to find a product safe or unsafe--either to boost profits at a particular company, or to eliminate someone else's competition. In the case of nuclear fallout, what easier way to eliminate the competition than to bribe a government scientist to declare your competition's product contaminated? Or, what easier way to avoid thorough cleanup than to bribe a scientist to declare your region safe?

  2. Furthermore, what inevitably happens is that the government absolves private businesses of all culpability. That is, when the government declares a product safe, a private company is more or less immune frome future prosecutorial damages if it's later proved that the product was in fact unsafe.

    If it isn't already obvious by now, a free-market solution to safety works because a company charged with analyzing safety can ONLY be successful if it gains a reputation for high-quality analysis. Again, this is in stark contrast to government incentive. In fact, when government fails at a task, the usual response is, "we need more funding." I meen lets be realistic, in the world of private business when your company can afford to expand we call that a measure of "success". Thus, in the world of government, expansion should ALSO be considered success. Therefore, we have a situation where government ONLY succeeds when it fails. That is, the worse a job the government does, the more funding it demands, and thus the more success it achieves! When the government security operatives fail (aka Police) to stop a terrorist attack in NYC, they get more funding. When a plane crashes, the FAA gets more funding. When food poisoning occurs, the FDA gets more funding. A successful government, should, by definition, fail it's people.

    Now, I know the socialists are chomping at the bit, ready to scream, "BUT THOSE POOR POOR PEOPLE THEY CAN'T AFFORD SAFETY IN YOUR CAPITALIST UTOPIAN VISION. THEY WILL ALL DIE OF FOOD AND RADIATION POISONING BECAUSE RICH PEOPLE DON'T GIVE A SHIT ABOUT THEM." This is such a difficult misconseption to explain to socialists because it is based on a lot of incorrect assumptions about the economics of the State. The most basic assumption is that progressive taxation allows poor people to have access to more resources than they could otherwise afford on their own. There are a lot of reasons why this is simply untrue. There's currency debasement, the hidden tax on the poor. There's tax loop holes which negate the effects of progressive taxation. There's misallocation of resources by the government which in the long-run makes everyone poorer. Once you understand all of these concepts, you come to the conclusion that if the governent stopped stealing our money we would be able to afford these services on our own, they would be of higher quality, and they would be more affordable. IOW, it is patently incorrect to assume that the poor would be worse off in a free (capitalist) society. So, if a poor person chose to purchase safety products he would be relatively more safe than he is today with the government providing safety services.