Archives for : quake

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.

Fukushima Restaurant in Tokyo

 

A slideshow of photos taken at 47 Dining, a restaurant in Tokyo specializing in produce/cuisine from Fukushima. The photos were taken during an assignment for the Guardian newspaper and correspondent Justin McCurry’s excellent story about the place appeared in the newspaper on Nov. 17.

The online version can be found here

Of course it was mandatory to sample some of the fare on offer, which was excellent, especially the “ji-zake” including from the excellent but little-known Aizu Sake Brewery in Tajima

More photos can be found on my Photoshelter website here

It’s interesting that while people in Tokyo are slowly warming to the idea of purchasing and consuming produce from Fukushima, friends of mine in Fukushima and in most of the Tohoku region affected by last year’s disasters remain skeptical of foodstuffs that originate there.

That being said, my local supermarket often sticks produce from Fukushima but if the same item is available from another part of the country there is little doubt as to which is more popular with customers. One Fukushima grape grower I interviewed for a story said that despite there being no evidence of contamination in his part of central Fukushima he has his produce scanned both by the government and through an independent company in Saitama, which neighbors Tokyo to the north. The scans reveal nothing of concern, but his sales are down 30% compared with before the disasters. Other farmers have resorted to other means to try and regain consumer confidence, but admit it is going to be a long time before their produce is fully accepted on a wider level. If ever.

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.

Fukushima Fuel Extracted

Workers undertaking fuel extraction operations at Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant

Rob Gilhooly

Tokyo

Operations commenced July 18 to remove nuclear fuel assembiles from the storage pool of one of the reactors at Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, some 16 months after the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl struck northeastern Japan.

Despite plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) requesting media outlets to refrain from filming the delicate and highly dangerous operations, aerial images aired on TV and online showed cranes lifting two of the 1,535 fuel units, each of which holds 60 fuel rods, from the No. 4 reactor building.

The procedure marked the first stage of a program that could go on for years to remove both unused and used fuel from the reactor in order to counter the risk of further radiation leakage.

Experts, including nuclear engineer Arnie Gundersen of Fairwinds Energy Education, have long argued that structural weaknesses in the reactor building, which was severely damaged by an explosion last March that exposed spent fuel to the atmosphere, could cause a large-scale catastrophe should another large quake strike the area.

Hiroaki Koide of Kyoto University’s Department of Reactor Safety Management, says that the biggest concern remains the sheer volume of fuel in the pools, which if exposed to the air would cause massive radioactive releases.

The amount of cesium 137 in the fuel in the pools is equivalent to 5,000 times the amount that was spread by the Hiroshima atomic bomb,” says Koide. “The government has said that the amount of radioactivity released by the three affected reactors following 3.11 was 168 times that of Hiroshima, so it is clear that we would be looking at a considerably worse outcome should the (rector 4) structure be compromised.”

The government used exactly such an outcome in its worse-case scenario analysis following the disasters, concluding that residents in Greater Tokyo – home to around 35 million people — would need to be evacuated in such an eventuality.

TEPCO has announced that repair work has sufficiently stabilized the structure, and while Koide is doubtful such operations could have been properly executed under the still high levels of radiation at the plant, others are less skeptical.

My understanding is that now they do have some redundancy in the cooling systems and have buttressed the fuel ponds themselves,” said Malcolm Grimston, a nuclear expert at Imperial College London. “So things are reasonably stable even against another earthquake, though obviously it depends upon where and how strong.”

The first fuel to be removed are among some 204 units that had yet to be used, meaning it posed little danger because unused fuel emits low levels of radiation, Tepco was reported as saying. Operations to remove the 1,331 more dangerous used fuel units will not be manageable until a much larger crane has first been installed. This will be used to haul out mammoth 100-ton metal casks that will be required to house the fuel units to ensure they not exposed to the air, says Kyoto University’s Koide.

TEPCO, which declined to comment on the latest maneuvers due to their “sensitive” nature, estimates that such operations will commence in December 2013, though Koide believes that is ambitious. “It’s a process that carries with it an immense amount of danger,” he says.

Some experts decry Wednesday’s maneuvers as further proof that the utility has no concern for public safety. University of Tokyo professor Ayumu Yasutomi says the removal of the unused fuel was merely a “demonstration” to give the impression it is working in the public’s best interests.

The aim of this is not to protect the people but to protect Nuclear Power Plants in Japan,” says Yasutomi. “This latest procedure is horrifying – just one small mistake and we could be subjected to  something unimaginable. I personally doubt TEPCO has the technical knowhow to carry out these procedures and we should leave it to a capable team of international experts.”

Meanwhile on the same day, a second reactor went back online at the Oi Nuclear power Plant in Fukui Prefecture, just two months after another reactor reached criticality at the same plant in May. The government justified the move in the name of supplying sufficient energy in the steamy summer months, bringing public sentiment to simmering point in Tokyo on July 16, when an estimated 170,000 people took to the streets to voice their disapproval.

Version of above story published in New Scientist magazine here

Photo courtesy of TEPCO

 

Time has frozen for grief-stricken Parents

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

Tohoku 1 Year On (Part 2)

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