Archives for : earthquake

High radiation levels detected on school grounds near Tokyo

Reports emerged yesterday that radiation levels exceeding the safety limits set by the Japanese government were recorded at school playgrounds near Tokyo.

Schoolchildren walk across the playground at Oyama Primary School in Otama Village, Fukushima Prefecture, Japan on May 27, 2011. New government regulations regarding the acceptable radiation doses for children led to the school removing the top soil of the playground and burying it around 1 meter below the surface. Photo: Rob Gilhooly

Schoolchildren walk across the playground at Oyama Primary School in Otama Village, Fukushima Prefecture, Japan on May 27, 2011. New government regulations regarding the acceptable radiation doses for children led to the school removing the top soil of the playground and burying it around 1 meter below the surface. Photo: Rob Gilhooly

Officials of the educational board in Chiba Prefecture, which neighbours Tokyo, reported that five schools in the Chiba city of Kashiwa had detected radiation levels of up to 0.72 microsieverts per hour in areas of the schools, including playgrounds and near swimming pools, more than triple the government-set limit.

Meanwhile, the man who headed the parliamentary investigation into the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster has voiced criticisms of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his administration’s policies on restarting reactors, saying that proper evacuation plans are still to be effectuated at plants that have been restarted or where restarts are imminent.

You can find more information on these stories here (http://www.yoshidas-dilemma.com/blog/high-radiation-levels-found-on-school-grounds-near-tokyo)

More thyroid cancers found in Fukushima

Last week the Fukushima prefectural government announced that seven more cases of thyroid cancer had been discovered among residents who had lived near the Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power plant at the time of  the multiple explosions and meltdowns there in March 2011.

The new cases were announced during a meeting of an expert panel, and brought the total of confirmed thyroid cases to 152, it was reported. However, the panel, which is headed by Hokuto Hoshi, vice-chair of Fukushima’s medical association, believed it was “unlikely” that the new cases were connected to the radiation that spewed from the Fukushima nuclear plant into the air and sea for weeks and months after the disaster.

A nuclear plant worker, one of the so-called "Fukushima 50," is scanned for radiation at Onahama Port, Iwaki City, Fukushima Prefecture on 23 March 2011. Rob Gilhooly photo

A nuclear plant worker, one of the so-called “Fukushima 50,” is scanned for radiation at Onahama Port, Iwaki City, Fukushima Prefecture on 23 March 2011. Rob Gilhooly photo

To quote one famous US baseball player, it was like déjà vu all over again, and it is worth revisiting the issue to understand why panelists and other scientists are unwilling to state categorically why cancers can or cannot be tied to radiation exposure.

According to some experts it is almost impossible to prove the medical relation between radiation exposure and cancers. Geraldine Thomas, a professor of molecular pathology at Imperial College London, says that proving a nuclear accident such as Fukushima will categorically not cause cancers or other illnesses “is incredibly difficult.”  However, she adds that while it is easy to blame radiation exposure, it is almost impossible to prove there is a connection, either, as there are no biomarkers that can be used to distinguish between different aetiologies.

“There’s no way of distinguishing between the radiation from nuclear power plants and radiation in the background (i.e. naturally occurring in the environment),” says Thomas, who also runs the Chernobyl Tissue Bank, which analyzes samples of tissue from people exposed to radiation after Chernobyl in order to monitor the impact of iodine exposure in children. “Everyone hoped we would find … a (genetic) marker for radiation-induced cancer, but there isn’t one.”

Other experts, such as Hisako Kakiyama, a medical doctor who is also a former head researcher at Japan’s national radiological research institute, disagrees, saying research has shown that even low levels of radiation have led directly to cancers such as thyroid cancer.

The debate over the impact of radiation on health is discussed at length in “Yoshida’s Dilemma,” as indeed is the issue of the credibility of Fukushima’s surveys and studies examining the thyroid cancer issue.

In the wake of the worst nuclear disaster in 25 years, the Fukushima Prefectural government in cooperation with Fukushima Medical University (FMU) began monitoring the health of residents who were under 18 at the time of the incident at the plant. FMU has since been is overseeing thyroid-cancer all screening and surgeries. By April 2014, 380,000 children, including those who were in utero on 11 March 2011, had been tested in the prefectural government checks, of which around 75 were confirmed as having malignant nodules, while a similar number were suspected of having nodules, but malignancy had yet to be confirmed – high compared to other known international statistics.

However, the lead researcher at FMU at the time, Shunichi Yamashita, a former president of the Japan Thyroid Association,  claimed (you guessed it) that it was highly unlikely that the cancers uncovered in Fukushima were connected to radiation.

Yet, shortly after, Yamashita, along with three other leading researchers, resigned from the study after it was revealed in a Mainichi Shimbun investigation that lengthy secret meetings had been instigated among researchers and prefectural officials to pre-determine a line of argument during official deliberation sessions that would emphasize the view of a non-causal relationship between cancer cases and the nuclear disaster.

Shortly after it came to light that the data required to confirm this assertion was not available and that one scientist, Hirosaki University’s Shinji Tokonami, who had tried to obtain independent verification of how much radiation residents had been exposed to in the immediate aftermath of the disasters, was prevented from completing his research by prefectural officials.

According to radiation expert Sakiyama, without such data it becomes impossible to say conclusively that any cancers discovered among residents was caused by radiation from the nuclear power plant.

Still more problems with the FMU study have since come to light.  On March 31, 2017, Sakiyama  who is also a representative of the 3.11 Fund for Children With Thyroid Cancer, announced that a 4-year-old child who had been diagnosed with thyroid cancer after the Fukushima nuclear accident was missing from government checkup records. The toddler’s case was omitted from data taken by FMU, which had treated the child. This seeming clerical error raised still more questions about the thoroughness and transparency of the thyroid screenings. Sakiyama stated that any missing case was “a problem” and brought about suspicions that there could be still more such cases missing from the data.

Katsutaka Idogawa, who was the mayor of Futaba, one of the two towns hosting the stricken Fukushima nuclear plant, believes this was the outcome of a deliberate and carefully planned strategy by the government to prevent accurate information about radiation doses being disseminated.

The reason, he says, is clear: To ensure compensation claims are kept to an absolute minimum. “That was a deliberate policy by the government because if they had [provided accurate data] it would have caused a massive problem to the extent of national economic collapse. So right from the start, they made the radiation problem a non-problem.”

With regard to the surveys of residents undertaken by the FMU, Imperial College’s Thomas said such a practice of screening for thyroid or any other cancers is highly debatable. “Although it has the obvious advantage of finding cancers early, it also finds more of them when testing on such an unusually large scale using high-tech equipment to look for them,” she said, adding that such an outcome is often  referred to as the “screening effect”.

Many cancers found are too small to require the treatment they almost certainly will get, whether or not such treatment at that stage is actually necessary, she adds. “If you operate on these, there is always a danger, so there is a risk and a benefit of doing these kinds of survey.”

Yet, Idogawa is among those who are critical of the likes of Thomas who, he says, have a microscopic perspective when it comes to the health impacts of radiation exposure. Indeed, Idogawa believes there are almost certainly many many more cancer cases that have yet to come to light quite simply because of the stigma that is still associated with radiation-induced cancers and other illnesses. This was prevalent following the A-bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki where hibakusha (literally “nuked person”) would conceal their condition — where possible — for fear of being ostracised. That fear not only applied to them, but their children and other relatives. Even today, there are hibakusha and relatives of hibakusha who will not speak to journalists on the record — if at all.

This has already been shown to be a problem in Fukushima.  Children who were forced to relocate to other parts of the country have been subjected to bullying purely because they are from Fukushima. A couple I interviewed for Yoshida’s Dilemma told of how on a 2012 coach trip to western Japan they had decided not to tell fellow travellers they were from Fukushima. When their identity was eventually betrayed, those same fellow travellers would not talk to them or sit near them.

Another unusual situation that did not make it into the book involved one young Fukushima man having his engagement nullified by his future parents-in-law purely because he was from Fukushima. The irony was — so were his bride-to-be and her parents.

“My guess is there are dozens, maybe hundreds more Fukushima residents who have been diagnosed with cancer,” says Idogawa. “But they won’t risk coming forward for fear of similar treatment to themselves and their families.”

If that is the case, there seems to be an even greater need to get them to come forward, but also for there to be greater transparency with the data being collected.  Without such accurate monitoring and dissemination of results scientists will be unable to reach a clear consensus about the connection between radiation  and various cancers.

You can find out more about this and other issues at my blog site dedicated to my book Yoshida’s Dilemma, which contains many entries relating to the Fukushima nuclear accident and nuclear and other types of energy. It also includes a sample chapter from the book and information about where to order it. Please take a look: www.yoshidas-dilemma.com

My book on the Fukushima nuclear crisis is now available

Following the March 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear accident in northern Japan I began researching a book. The focus was on the meltdowns and YOSHIDA COVERexplosions that had occurred at the Fukushima Daichi Nuclear Power Plant and in particular the people who had battled to ensure an even bigger catastrophe was averted.

That research culminated in a book titled “Yoshida’s Dilemma: One Man’s Struggle to Avert Nuclear catastrophe – Fukushima, March 2011” and I am delighted to announce that on March 11, 2017 — exactly six years since the day of the Great Tohoku Earthquake, that book was published.

There is a website about the book here. It includes an overview of the book and an eight-page extract.

The book is now available through the publisher’s website here and also on Amazon here

It was never my intention to offer my own personal views on the important issue regarding nuclear power, only to try and find out what exactly had caused the triple meltdowns and to try and find an answer to a fundamental question: Should a country like Japan, which experiences one-tenth of the world’s biggest quakes, really be housing so many nuclear reactors.

Below are some comments about the book. I hope they will inspire you to check it out.

“Rob Gilhooly has written what is probably the most comprehensive English-language account yet of the Fukushima nuclear meltdown.  Gilhooly is among the best-informed foreign reporters on this issue in Japan, having travelled to Fukushima several dozen times since being one of the first journalists to arrive in the prefecture on a freezing night in March 2011.  He gives the story of Masao Yoshida, perhaps the key figure in the disaster, all the detail, sympathy and pathos it demands.  His remarkable pictures throughout the book are a bonus.  Highly recommended. “

— David McNeil, The Economist.

“A powerful synthesis of the technical and the personal, Gilhooly succeeds in conveying the events of March 2011, its aftermath and the dramatic impact on the people of Fukushima and wider Japan. Six years after the start of the accident, Yoshida’s Dilemma is a necessary reminder of how through the actions of heroic individuals and luck Japan avoided an even greater catastrophe.”  
— S. David  Freeman, former Tennessee Valley Authority chairman, engineer, energy expert and author of Energy: The New Era and Winning Our Energy Independence

“As one of the few journalists to have covered the Fukushima story from the very start, Rob Gilhooly is perfectly placed to discuss the disaster’s causes and aftermath, and its wider ramifications for the future of nuclear power. From the chaotic scenes as the plant went into triple meltdown, to the plight of evacuated residents and Japan’s long and troubled relationship with atomic energy, Gilhooly combines fine story-telling with journalistic integrity to produce a book that is admirably free of hyperbole.” 
— Justin McCurry, The Guardian.

Renewable village offers lifeline to Fukushima farmers

I had a story published in New Scientist (in the magazine print edition in late December and in the online edition on Jan. 6) about a community-run project that promotes renewable energy generation and the reuse of farmland in Fukushima. Below is a slightly longer version of the story, which I think demonstrates once more how some local residents are showing initiative in the face of adversity.

 

By Rob Gilhooly

Minamisoma, Fukushima Prefecture.

It seems like the last place to find a Utopian blueprint. Yet, on an idyllic patch of Fukushima land blighted by nuclear fallout 33 months ago stands the foundations of a model village of the future.

Kenro Okumura stands by the PV panels that form part of the Renewable Energy Village in Minamisoma, Fukushima Prefecture. ©Rob Gilhooly Photo. All rights reserved

The farmland in this coastal city is currently home to 120 photovoltaic panels bolted atop a 3-meter-high frame. Upon completion, however, the “Renewable Energy Village” will also feature a wind farm, farmland for radioresistant crops, educational and recreational facilities and an astronomical observatory.

One crop that has already been planted, namely rapeseed, was chosen, say project organisers, because its oil is free of contaminants even though the plants themselves take in some radioisotopes such as those of caesium.

The community-run project was launched in an attempt to protect the area’s farming industry, which was devastated by the triple meltdowns at Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant in March 2011.

People evacuated from areas closer to the plant have given up ever farming their fields again,” said project leader Ryozo Hakozaki. “There might be an amusement park feel to the project, but we’re trying to show them what the future could hold.”

Around 65 percent of Minamisoma’s 8,500 hectares of farmland lies within the nuclear evacuation zone, a 1,256 sq. km area – around half of which is land – that includes parts of Minamisoma. The remainder was flooded by tsunami waves and showered with radionuclides, but in December permission was granted to plant rice there, despite tests revealing cesium levels exceeding the official 100 becquerels per kg limit.

Some farmers see the move as facile, says local assemblyman Kenro Okumura, a local assemblyman and farmer who donated farmland for the project. “It’s three years since the accident, but still there’s no guarantee that crops can be sold,” he said. “At worst our plan protects farmland.”

Central to the project is “solar sharing”– erecting solar panels above farmland and growing crops underneath. Complementing the idea is a government initiative encouraging enterprises to sell solar energy to utilities companies.

That initiative, which was introduced in July 2012, centers around generous feed-in tariffs, which are among the highest in the world. As a result, they have triggered the development large-scale solar parks – though none uses solar sharing. Most have solar panels resting on the ground itself, which makes growing crops impossible. One will be the country’s largest solar park, also in Minamisoma.

Largely thanks to these, shipments of solar more than tripled in the second quarter of 2013, according the Japan Photovoltaic Energy Association.

Hakozaki says such large-scale ventures have a major drawback in that they threaten Minamisoma’s farming industry. “If farmers decide to sell up their land to megasolar parks … entire communities will be wiped off the map.”

The Renewable Energy Village model offers a way around this issue, said project chairman Sohei Takahashi, whose radionuclide decontamination research organization is also developing new, radioresistant produce.

Through the project we can protect farmland and communities and with two parallel revenues create increased prosperity compared with before the disasters.”

 

Thin fault zone, slippery clay behind gravity distorting quake

Had a story published in New Scientist about research at the quake subduction zone revealing weak geological factors at the fault zone being behind the massive quake that hit Japan’s northeast in 2011. It sounds as though this is one of those “duh” moments, but methods used to come to this conclusion are truly groundbreaking, involving deep-sea drilling more than

Photo shows the Chikyu (Earth) deep sea research vessel docked at Shimizu port in Shimizu, Shizuoka Prefecture, Japan on 11 Sept. 2013. Photographer: Rob Gilhooly. All rights reserved.

800 meters below the seabed at the subduction site, which itself is over 7 km below the water.

The research was conducted aboard the Chikyu deep-sea research vessel (pictured right), which I recently boarded when it docked a couple of months ago — a fascinating experience in itself and one I shall be writing about.

 

Using the data collected from the site during research that began in early 2012, three papers were published in the peer-reviewed Science journal by a team of international scientists.

The first is about the geology of the fault zone and the main result found there is that the fault zone is only about 5 meters or less thick. “That’s fairly unusual and different from what we have observed in other subduction zones. Usually in the 10s of meters or more,” researcher James Mori told me.

The second paper is about measuring the friction of the fault using the core sample of the fault zone material and putting it in a machine that simulates an earthquake and measures the friction. The main result from that paper is the friction is very low due to a huge presence of called smectite — a a slippery clay that is often found to be at the centre of large landslides in Europe. “That means the fault slips very easily during the big earthquake,” Mori added. “Essentially this is the first time such material has been taken from a big subduction zone earthquake so it’s really a brand new result.”

The third paper relates to temperature measurement taken using devices that were placed in the boreholes earlier this year. This too was designed to measure friction. Essentially the same results were found as from other core sample experiment, meaning researchers had two very different ways of estimating the friction. Both  gave about the same level of what is called the “coefficient of friction”. In this case the COF was about 0.1, which is very low — most rocks slip at a COF of about 0.5 or 0.6.

“So one of the ways of applying this is to say that subduction zones that have especially thin fault zones with a lot of smectite potentially can produce these very large slips of 50 meters and potentially could produce very large tsunamis,” said Mori. “That’s not to say that … if there is no smectite there is not going to be big tsunamis — that’s not a good conclusion.”

A separate report utilised data taken from the European Space Agency’s GOCE satellite that showed the March 2011 quake had been “felt” in space and distorted gravity over time.

Visit to the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant

It has been quite some time since I added anything to this blog, though quite a lot has happened in the intervening weeks and months. In March I spent the best part of three weeks covering a trial for an Irish newspaper, which related to the murder last May (2012) of an Irish student in Tokyo. There are a few other projects I have been working and hopefully I will get around to adding posts to update this blog in the near future.

On to more recent assignments, on June 12 I  part in a tour of the Fukushima Daichi nuclear power plant, which suffered triple meltdowns following the March 2011  earthquake and tsunami in Japan’s northeast. My plan is to write up a more personal account of the experience but for the time being here is the story that I wrote up for the New Scientist, which appeared in the magazine last week.

Photo shows the steel canopy arching over Unit 4 of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. The now completed structure will be used to support a overhead crane strong enough to lift 100-ton vessels into which will be placed the 1533 pent fuel assemblies that are still residing inside the unit's spent fuel pool on the 3rd floor. they will be moved to a common spent fuel pool

 

 

By Rob Gilhooly at Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant

 

An alarm lets off a shrill beep as a dosimeter on the bus hits 1500 microsieverts of radiation. “Do not open the windows,” an official warns. We are inside the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, driving by one of the three reactors that went into meltdown following the earthquake and tsunami that struck north-eastern Japan on 11 March 2011.

The place is a mess, with mangled containers and vehicles scattered around crumbling buildings – but the fact that I’m even here is testament to the now relative safety of the plant. However, much remains to be done and the clean-up operation is starting to look never-ending.

The group I’m with is ushered into a quake-proof building, the plant’s nerve centre since the disaster, by staff from the Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco), the plant’s operator. Inside, the only sign of the post-disaster panic and stabilisation operations, undertaken by 3,000 workers a day, is a line of unmade bunk beds, indicating that the clean-up operation is still a round-the-clock affair.

The walls are decorated with messages of encouragement to embattled workers from school children. “We’re rooting for you,” reads one, a bright red heart drawn above. Many of the messages were penned during more ominous times, when tens of thousands of residents living near the plant were evacuated from their homes, and plant workers struggled to secure  water to cool the compromised containment vessels housing the reactor fuel.

Water shortages are no longer the problem – quite the opposite. Today, the main issue is what to do with all the water used to cool the fuel that melted through the containment vessels. This is exacerbated by the 400 tonnes of groundwater that are flooding into the basements of the cracked reactors every day and mingling with leaked nuclides.

rest of story available at New Scientist website here

 

Earthquake on Dec. 7 2012

Injuries were reported in Japan Friday after a magnitude 7.3 earthquake jolted the northeastern region that was devastated by  last years quake and tsunami.

The meteorological agency immediately issued a tsunami warning in the area around Ishinomaki, one of the cities that was flattened by 20 meter waves during the March 2011 disasters.

Tsunami warnings were sounded throughout the area urging people to flea to safety on higher ground. Several cities in Miyagi, including the region’s capital, Sendai, urged residents in coastal areas to evacuate. Sendai Airport was immediately shut down, and flights headed for the airport from domestic destinations were ordered not to land. The tsunami eventually reached Ayukawa at 18:02.

The Nuclear Regulation Authority said no abnormalities had been detected at nuclear plants in the area, including Tepco’s Fukushima Daiichi plant, site of the world’s worst ever nuclear disaster last year, and Tohoku Electric Power Co’s Onagawa plant.

Japan’s Meteorological Agency reported that a tsunami measuring 1 meter in height had hit the Ayukawa area on Ishinomaki’s Ojika Peninsula. Further tsunami were anticipated, a spokesman said.

Television images showed violent shaking in Miyagi, Fukushima and Ibaraki prefectures. In Tokyo the shaking continued for more than a minute. Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda cancelled appointments and immediately returned to his offices, telling reporters he intended to “thoroughly” respond to the quake.

The M7.3 quake hit at at 17:22 local time some 237 km off the Pacific coast of the Ojika Peninsula at a depth of 10 km. The biggest tremors, estimated at around 5 in the Japanese scale of 7, could be felt as far away as Hachinohe in Aomori and Hitachi in Ibaraki.

Some high-speed bullet train services were suspended while minor injuries were reported in Ibaraki and Miyagi.

Japan is estimated to experience 10 percent of the world’s earthquakes and has been stricken by 2 major quakes in the past 17 years, killing a total of 25,000 people.

Strong in the Rain

The cover of David McNeil and Lucy Birmingham's "Strong in the Rain"

 

One of my photos was used on the cover of a book (and several more inside) about the 2011 Tohoku disasters, authored by the Independent’s David McNeil and Lucy Birmingham of Time magazine. As part of a wider article, Ian Buruma takes a look at the book for the New York Review of Books here and an excerpt can be found here

The title of the book comes from a celebrated poem by early 20th century writer Kenji Miyazawa, who was, coincidentally, born in one of the affected cities In Iwate Prefecture.

The authors kindly sent me a copy of the book and I am looking forward to getting stuck into that very soon. Fingers crossed for both of them that it does well – David and Lucy are remarkable journalists so I’m sure it will.

Solar – Japan’s shining light?

Solar-powered lights are left out on the roof to recharge at a temporary evacuation shelter in Kama elementary school, Ishinomaki City, Miyagi Prefecture Japan on April 11, 2011. Photographer: Robert Gilhooly

Story published in New Scientist magazine about Japan’s moves in the solar energy industry here.

 

WITH nuclear power on the ropes in Japan, it could be solar power’s time to shine. Minamisoma City in Fukushima prefecture has signed an agreement with Toshiba to build the country’s biggest solar park. The deal comes weeks after Japan introduced feed-in tariffs to subsidise renewable energy – a move that could see the nation become one of the world’s largest markets for solar power.

Parts of Minamisoma are around 10 kilometres from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, and land there has been contaminated by radiation fallout. “Moving away from a dependency on nuclear is of course involved [with the agreement to build the solar park],” a city official said.

Both Minamisoma and neighbouring Namie have called for the cancellation of plans to build a nearby nuclear power plant – although Minamisoma has received $6.4 million over the past 25 years for initially agreeing to host the facility.

A number of Japanese municipalities have started solar projects in recent months. Plans have been drawn up for large-scale solar parks in Hokkaido and Kyushu, while SB Energy began operating two megasolar facilities, in Kyoto and Gunma, on 1 July.

“New solar projects are being generated day by day,” says Toshiba’s Yuji Shimada.

Solar, wind, biomass and geothermal energy still account for just 1 per cent of Japan’s power capacity, however, so Japan has introduced a tariff to encourage investment. Utilities will pay solar energy firms around $0.5 per kilowatt-hour – triple the standard industrial electricity price. The extra money will come through a rise in electricity prices.

Some estimates suggest the move could help Japan leapfrog Italy andbecome the second-biggest market for solar power after Germany – although business groups fear that Japan’s economic recovery will slow as a result of the electricity price rise.

Meanwhile, Japan’s nuclear power industry will continue to provide competition. A reactor at the Oi nuclear facility in Fukui prefecture was brought back online as the tariffs were introduced.

 

 

 

Time has frozen for grief-stricken Parents

Story published in Japan times one year anniversary edition on March 11, 2012.

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