A year ago today, we got stuck in a train tunnel after an earthquake had triggered an emergency stop of our commuter train. We were completely unaware of the fact that while we were waiting in the dark train, the biggest natural disaster to strike Japan in recent history was unfolding: a huge tsunami triggered by the magnitude 9 earthquake off the coast of the Tohoku region was washing entire towns into the sea, deposing large ships several kilometers inland. Even today, it is hard to grasp the sheer extent of the disaster: 15 854 people have died that day, with another 3155 unaccounted for, the coastal regions still an unrecognizable wasteland.
Although this event has rocked our world, it seems almost impossible to match our own experience to the pictures of complete destruction that came from the North. Our reality is a mosaic of our own experiences mixed with those of our friends and acquaintances. The accounts of window panes bending during the earthquake at IPMU, of standing without a jacket for three hours on the lawn in the cold after having evacuated the building, of watching a little crack form on the facade of a university building at Komaba campus and watching it creep down the wall, or even of queuing for drinking water after the water lines had been cut off in Tsukuba, these little pieces fit the picture of the reality we lived through ourselves. Our reality was one of interrupted train services and no toilet paper in the supermarket, something incredibly far removed from what people have gone through on the Tohoku east coast.
There is another point that deserves to be made. What happened one year ago, was a huge earthquake and tsunami. It was not “Fukushima”. “Fukushima” has not killed close to 20’000 people. While I don’t want to minimize the nuclear accident, it is worth pointing out that so far, the released radioactivity has not claimed any lives. Thanks to the international media, the March 11 disaster has remained in the minds of people around the world as “Fukushima”. The nuclear accident has been only one of the many tragic consequences of the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, and just focusing on this is not doing justice to the tens of thousands of real victims of a natural disaster.
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Japan is a country at high risk of major earthquakes. This is a fact of life that you have to accept when living there. The Tokyo region has been bracing for decades for the “Big One” (such as recurrences of the Kanto and Tokai earthquakes). After the Tohoku earthquake, which happened on a different (and maybe unexpected) fault line, these are not off the table. But if this teaches us anything, it is that we are still very poor at predicting such events. While it is useful to be prepared, it is pointless to live in fear.
The experience of the quake has of course some very practical consequences for me. It has changed how I stack stuff in a cupboard. It has changed how close to an edge I’ll be putting things. And it has changed how much I’ll be filling up the aquarium. (more…)
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Conspiracy theories abound these days. One often expressed fear, both abroad and here, is that the government is not telling us the truth.
The fact is that nuclear disasters are hard to hide. We have access to the figures for radiation measurements for all prefectures for the last two days, we have the figures of AIST (The National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology) in Tsukuba (Ibaraki), and the figures of the measurements of the University of Tokyo for its three campuses (on top of which, we have our own data taken at home). And while a momentary increase in radiation has been observed on Monday (which was still an absolutely harmless figure and mostly proves the sensitivity of our measurement processes), the figures have been falling ever since. Since yesterday morning, we’re essentially measuring only the natural background here in Tokyo.
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Tension has been high over the last few days.
While the almost constantly occurring aftershocks seem to be dying down slowly, stronger earthquakes still make our days more interesting. Yesterday evening, a strong quake originating from the Mt. Fuji region shook buildings in Tokyo.
Our first question in the morning has become “how many have you felt last night?” When we check the data of the Japan Meteorological Society, it usually turns out that there was a number of quakes we had slept through.
Tokyo has been mostly exempt from the rolling blackouts, but the Kashiwa Campus of the University of Tokyo is experiencing daily power cuts for several hours. Since also the trains serving the blacked out areas are obviously not running, we have been working from home these last days. Public transit is generally disrupted since power saving measures are being implemented throughout Greater Tokyo. (more…)
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Okay, now I am really freaking out. But it’s about the international reaction to what is happening here.
People cry out that if nuclear power is not safe in Japan, it is safe nowhere. “Fukushima is everywhere”? No. No, no, and no. There are very few places in the world at risk of a 9.0 magnitude earthquake and a subsequent 14m Tsunami. Least of all Germany or Switzerland. What people are forgetting, is that this nuclear power plant didn’t just start acting up on a whim. What they are forgetting here, is that we are talking about a major natural disaster. The kind that cannot be withstood by man. And considering the scope of what happened, the power plants have performed extremely well. The nuclear fission reaction was shut down immediately in all units. And despite the quake being beyond the worst expectations, containment vessels remained intact.
People, do you really want to go back to firing with coal? Just because no excited news speaker informs you of the creeping but evil effects it has on human health and the planet as a whole?
How come that no one called out noisily to end all use of fossil fuels when the gulf oil spill released untold amounts of pollution into the environment last year? How come no one said that, clearly, “fossil fuels cannot be controlled by humans”?
It is an unfortunate fact of history, that nuclear technology has started out with the bomb, a fact that has convinced the world of its apparently inherent evil.
What seems even stranger is that the world seems to have forgotten already that thousands of people have died here a few days ago. Whatever follows at Fukushima Daiichi, its effect will remain several orders of magnitude below what has already happened in Tohoku. Let’s not get confused about the actual disasters.
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Let me get right to the point. The answer is no.
While the extent of the destruction caused by the recent earthquake is immense in the Tohoku region, I would first like to point out that Greater Tokyo it not a crisis region. It experiences disruptions of public transport and may be subject to planned power outages, both due to the rationing of electric power, but that’s as far as it goes. No cause for alarm.
Furthermore, I have to say that I find the tone of international press coverage concerning the situation at the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plants very regrettable. It is needlessly sensationalistic and consciously raises fears of the population to heat up the anti-nuclear debate. Obviously, I follow the coverage of NHK and the press releases of the IAEA very closely. I quote from IAEA (their servers are still a bit unsteady):
At Unit 1, plant operators were able to restore a residual heat remover system, which is now being used to cool the reactor. Work is in progress to achieve a cold shutdown of the reactor.
Unit 3 is in a safe, cold shutdown.
The above-mentioned units pose no further threat.
Unit 2 lost its coolant today, but in the meantime, sea water has been injected, the water level inside is now at 2 m and the reactor is cooling down.
While the loss of coolant is a severe problem, the structural integrity of the containment vessels has at no point been an issue.
For a scientific take on the matter, this is a good read.
However, reading the German press really made my jaws drop. (No, there has not been a “Nuclear Disaster”, and neither is there one under way.). In my opinion, this kind of coverage is nothing but irresponsible. The constant repetition of footage from the Chernobyl accident on German TV is moreover completely misplaced, since the reactor type of the Fukushima power plant is completely different from the one at Chernobyl and renders such an accident a physical impossibility.
No wonder it is so hard for many of us foreigners to reassure our families abroad.
If the world out there is really as concerned for Japan’s plight as it claims, here’s what you can do: stop creating this climate of fear and impending catastrophe. You’re just making life harder for all of us.
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Watching the news coverage about the loss of cooling capacity and the subsequent explosion at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant got us naturally very worried. While NHK coverage was careful, I have to say that international media went over the top somewhat and made it sound like the containment vessel of the reactor itself had ruptured (which would have been disastrous).
If you want the facts, do not check the press coverage, but the news release of the International Atomic Energy Agency (whose servers could not cope with the amount of requests yesterday, but are up now).
A detailed report can also be found at the Japanese Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency.
The key sentence to remember is:
Containment remains intact at Fukushima Daiichi Units 1, 2 and 3.
This means that while locally, some contamination has been released, no great nuclear disaster is underway. While this is a serious problem for the workers who have to clean up the mess there and deserve all our support and compassion, everyone else is going to be okay.
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