Archives for : fukushima

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.”

 

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

 

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

 

Looking After Animals in Nuclear Zone

Human Guinea Pig

Nobuyoshi Ito, 67, tends to his rice fields in Iitate Village, Fukushima Prefecture, Japan on 08 Sept. 2011. Despite being advised to evacuate his home due to high radiation levels, Ito has decided to become a human guinea-pig, testing himself and his crops for radiation levels. Photograph: Robert Gilhooly

 

Visited this chap during a (slightly too long) trip up north, during which I had various work with the London Times, the Manchester Guardian and the Telegraph, among others for the 6-month anniversary of the March 11 quake and tsunami. This man was really quite remarkable, very calm, very organized. He doesn’t trust any of the information that has been out out about the leaking nuclear power plant, just 32 km from his abode, and so decided not to leave — one of only 9 residents now left in the vast, but eerily quiet town.

I wrote up a story about Mr. Ito for the Japan Times and you can find an online version of that story here

A trip to the evacuation zone for hanami

April 20. Went on an assignment for the Times with Japan correspondent Richard Lloyd Parry to the evacuation zone around the No. 1 Fukushima nuclear power plant. Another slightly unnerving trip into the zone — my fourth in total — with the only sign of life being abandoned pets, including thoroughbred dogs and a beautiful but unhealthily thin Siamese cat, and cattle.

We entered from Iwaki in the south and found that the police at the control point at the entrance to the zone were a little more fastidious than on previous visits. We first visited a community that had been hit pretty badly by the tsunami. ‘(Contrary to popular belief, the people of Fukushima have not only been affected by the nuclear power plant and in fact if anything the damage caused by the March 11 quake is more noticeable in these parts than in anywhere I have visited in Iwate or Miyagi.)  There was a terrible stench and later found the source — dead cattle among the rubble. Inside cars parked by the side of a road men in white suits were taking a break from the terrible work with which they are charged.

Other than that there was no sign of human life. Outside one house I found a tray of three shriveled up turnips, or carrots; outside another house a tray of small, blackened potatoes. The front door of one house a little further on had been left open, shoes in the entranceway were scattered about — very unusual for a Japanese home. Inside, the living room and kitchen were a mess. Everywhere there was signs of people having left in a hurry — no,  in a panic.

There are other parts of the day that I’d prefer not to revisit here, but later on we came across a 35-year-old woman — a former worker at the No. 2 Fukushima power plant — who had come back to her home, which is located along a road famed for its magnificent cherry trees, to collect some belongings. She expressed dismay at the damage to the plant, saying she had truly believed that it was built to withstand such a disaster. “I have no intention of returning,” she added tearfully, after taking out her phone and snapping off what could turn out to be her last photos of those lovely cherry trees, now in full bloom, that go on for several hundred meters, forming an incredible tunnel of pink.

Little did we know at the time that the following day the Japanese government would make it illegal to enter this dead zone, though such a move had been rumored. It seems an odd time to impose this ban — enforced by threat of financial penalty (¥100,000) and lengthy detention. The radiation levels are no higher than before — in fact they are probably lower — and the police report that there are only 60 people who have chosen to remain in their homes inside the zone anyway.

But there are those who try to sneak in. We came across one young cherry blossom enthusiast who had decided to come and take some photos of the flowering trees in Tomioka. He was concerned he said, but wanted to see the famed blossom here, before jumping in his car and driving off in search of a point from which he could get a better view of the leaking power plant, about 4 km away in Okuma.

On a personal note: Perhaps the worst part of all of this is the desperation of my friends in Fukushima — the prefecture I spent my first three years in Japan. Ironically, the people of Okuma have relocated to Aizu-Wakamatsu (it’s town offices have been shifted to a girls’ high school there as well), where I spent what were possibly the best 2 years of my time here. My best  friend there tells me that the fields have been cleared of significant levels of radiation. But this is still Fukushima Prefecture and anything with Fukushima attached to it from hereon is not going to be taken lightly.

For many many years to come.

I made a video during two of the trips to the zone and it has been uploaded to YouTube by Global Radio News here

Inside the Dead Zone

Former nuclear power plant worker Yuji Watanabe, 59, looks at a cow dying of thirst in a field in Minami-Soma, Fukushima Prefecture, Japan on 30 March, 2011.  Photographer: Robert Gilhooly

Former nuclear power plant worker Yuji Watanabe, 59, looks at a cow dying of thirst in a field in Minami-Soma, Fukushima Prefecture, Japan on 30 March, 2011. Photographer: Robert Gilhooly

An assignment for the Times took me to the exclusion area. Started in Minami-Soma, visiting a doctor who  has stayed behind in the exclusion zone to look after the estimated 10,000 people who have chosen to stay behind, against the advice of the government. Some of the local people we talked to expressed anger at the lack of transparency by nuclear plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co. (Tepco) and the government for leaving them behind. One man, who had returned to his clothing store to receive a delivery of elementary school uniforms that will most likely never be used, said he would like to throttle the Tepco president.

Staff and members of Japan's Self Defense Forces administer radiation checks at  a health center in Minami-Soma, Fukushima Prefecture, Japan on 30 March, 2011.  Photographer: Robert Gilhooly

Staff and Self Defense Forces members administer radiation checks. Photographer: Robert Gilhooly

Another woman we got talking to was clearly distressed at the thought that this community that she has never left will likely become a ghost town. Later that same lady took us deep into the exclusion zone to introduce us to a resident — a former worker at the nuclear plant it transpired — and then on to see the dozens of cattle and soon that had been left to fend for themselves. We saw several dead cows and another one dying from dehydration. Several stray dogs roamed the deserted streets. Later we returned to Minami-Soma and undertook a radiation check, which we passed with flying colors. Richard Lloyd Parry writes about the experience in today’s Times here (pay site).

Dave McNeil also made a visit, getting about as close to the nuclear power plant as you can without jumping out of a helicopter. Story in the Irish Times here

More of the photos that I took on this trip to the “death zone” can be found at my Photoshelter archive here

Fukushima 50

A member of the so-called Fukushima 50 is given a radiation check prior to boarding the Kaiwomaru in the dock at Onahama Port, Iwaki City, Fukushima Prefecture on  23 March 20011.   Photographer: Robert Gilhooly

A member of the so-called Fukushima 50 is given a radiation check prior to boarding the Kaiwo Maru at a dock in Fukushima Prefecture on 23 March 20011. Photographer: Robert Gilhooly

Met members of the so-called Fukushima 50, the men charged with trying to prevent further complications at the TEPCO nuclear power plant in Fukushima Prefecture. They were all checked for radiation, work clothes and a few other belongings in tightly fastened plastic bags. Some of them looked absolutely exhausted.

A member of the so-called Fukushima 50 boards the Kaiwomaru at a dock in Fukushima Prefecture on  23 March 20011.   Photographer: Robert Gilhooly

A member of the so-called Fukushima 50 boards the Kaiwomaru at a dock in Fukushima Prefecture on 23 March 20011. Photographer: Robert Gilhooly

The ones who were willing to talk said it was pretty scary inside the plants where they worked, but were totally focused on completing their “mission.” Many had been in touch with family members, who, they admitted, were concerned about their safety. “I can’t wait to see them,” said one of the crew.

A few of them described the duties with which they were charged, such as laying cables. The ones I met are  currently staying on a 4-mast sailing boat, a training vessel that was bound for Honolulu before being requisitioned by the government on the day of the quake. Staff aboard the ship said the tone onboard was  low-key and occasionally somber. “They are very quiet” said the vessels chief commanding officer, adding that all those onboard had turned down offers of beer. However, while some declined to talk or be photographed others offered a smile and a v-sign as they boarded the boat. Some photos of the men who are valiantly battling at the nuclear power plant can be found here

Japan earthquake and nuclear plant explosion

A woman weeps as she listens to the latest news on a transistor radio about the nuclear power plant explosion in Iwaki City

A woman weeps as she listens to the latest news on a transistor radio about the nuclear power plant explosion in Iwaki City

Left home this morning very early heading for Sendai, the city most affected by yesterday’s M8.8 quake. The going was slow — it took the best part of 4 hours just to get out of Tokyo. Then bluffed way onto the expressway, though officially closed. On the way I managed to get hold of a long-time Japanese friend in Fukushima and just as I called, Yosh told me there had just been an explosion at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant. Despite his objections, Sendai was ditched in favor of how near we could get to the plant. The roads were badly damaged and the area almost deserted but eventually made it to Iwaki, about  30 km from the plant. I came to Iwaki many times when I lived in Aizu — it wasn’t so far from where I lived — and never remember seeing it so desolate as this. Eventually found a refuge shelter filled with about 300 distraught refugees. Many had been taken there from communities close to the plant. The government had decided to evacuate anyone living within a 20 km radius of the explosion. Eventually found refuge in another ad hoc shelter, from where I am now sending this blog. The area may be deserted, and homes wrecked by yesterday’s tsunami, but we can still get online … More photos here

error: Content is protected !!