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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.”


Japan to start new nuclear regulations

DR. Shunchi Tanaka, chairman of Japan's Nuclear Regulatory Authority (NRA), speaks during a press conference at the Foreign Press Center in Tokyo, Japan on 04 July, 2013. Tanaka said that while operators of Japan's 48 reactors would be eligible to recommence operations should they meet the NRA's new guidelines, they would ultimately need to gain the cooperation of local governments and people of the communities in which those reactors are located. Photographer: Rob Gilhooly


Japan’s Nuclear Regulatory Authority has given the go ahead for the nation’s two reactors currently online to remain in service without further inspections following the announcement of NRA’s new safety standards, which will come into force July 7.

NRA chairman Shunichi Tanaka said during a news conference July 4 that Japan’s 48 other reactors, offline since the 2011 nuclear disaster in Fukushima, would need to comply to “strict and stringent” new regulations before they could be considered for re-start approval.
The NRA has even wider-reaching power than previous watch-dog bodies to ensure the regulations are met, Tanaka said Friday. A new “back-fit” system will be implemented to ensure that any aspects of plant inspections previously left at the discretion of operators will now be independently monitored. The upgrade would turn a previously B-ranked regulatory system into “one that at last comes into line with international standards,” the nuclear watchdog’s chair added.
Meanwhile, Tokyo Electric Power Co., the troubled utilities operator of Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, has said it will ask the government to allow it to restart two of its reactors at another facility in Niigata as they meet the new NRA safety guidelines.
Niigata Gov. Hirohiko Izumida has expressed dismay at Tepco’s request to restart two of the seven reactors at Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear power plant, which was completely shutdown following an earthquake in 2007.
NRA chairman Tanaka said even should utilities companies satisfy the new regulations they would need to win over local people. “The resumption of reactors will come only after operators and political leaders gain the understanding and cooperation of host communities,” he said.
He also believed that due to the severity of the new regulations a new safety awareness culture would grow, superseding the tendency previously seen within utilities companies to undertake the legally allowed bare minimum measures.
Tanaka also commented on the Fukushima power plant saying he did not feel a sarcophagus of the type used to enshroud Chernobyl’s reactor 4 was appropriate for the three damaged Fukushima reactors, which went into meltdown after massive earthquakes and tsunami hit the plant in March 2011.
At Fukushima Daiichi heat would continue to be emitted for tens or possibly hundreds of years, meaning countermeasures will still need to be taken. Rather than enshrouding the leaking reactors it was better to continue efforts to decommission the plants, he said.

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

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 Quake: what to believe?

a yacht that was driven into a building by the force of the tsunami that followed the March 11 magnitude 9 quake in Ishinomaki

Devastation in Ishinomaki following the mega tsunami on March 11

Members of Japan's Self Defense Forces lift onto a guerny the corpse of a man killed during the March 11 earthquake and tsunami in Ishinomaki.  Photographer: Robert Gilhooly

Members of Japan's Self Defense Forces lift onto a guerny the corpse of a man killed during the March 11 earthquake and tsunami in Ishinomaki. Photographer: Robert Gilhooly

Day 4. Today moved on to Ishinomaki, about a 2-hr drive from Sendai. The situation is pretty dire there. First thing I saw was several people liberating a supermarket, one man walking off with a wheelchair full of mud-caked goods, an elderly man — the owner of the wheelchair perhaps? — treading gingerly behind. A government official interviewed later admitted that rumours of looting were rife. Later, I saw a woman in her 40s picking up a long-discarded onigiri rice ball, while her husband pulled a crate full of bits and pieces he or they had taken from a nearby store. One man at a shelter said people were being rationed to a quarter of a roll of bread per breakfast. That same shelter, a 4-story elementary school, was home to 35 young children.

That man also said he was completely in the dark about what was going on with the nuclear power plant in Fukushima. I told him that I knew how he felt, though the difference between the two of us was simple: he had access to little information while I had too much. And much of it seemed incongruous.

A woman looks through a list of the names of people who have been delivered to a makeshift morgue in Ishinomaki. Photographer: Robert Gilhooly

A woman looks through a list of the names of people who have been delivered to a makeshift morgue in Ishinomaki. Photographer: Robert Gilhooly

I mean, just when the Japan government says that a reactor “has been stabilized”, the next thing I hear reported is that the situation is more grave than first feared. Meanwhile friends and family overseas have extended open invitations to their homes, based, in one case, on assessments of reports gleaned from various media sources overseas. Friends in Italy say they read an article in a British journal damning the Japanese  government’s lack of transparency. Then, I receive an email from a Kiwi friend regarding a telephone briefing from Sir John Beddington, the UK’s Chief Scientific adviser:

“Unequivocally, Tokyo will not be affected by the radiation fallout…” says Sir John.”The danger area is limited to within the 30 kilometer evacuation zone.”

Shortly after I read this, I hear that the BBC, the Guardian and CNN have ordered their reporters, snappers and other staff not just out of the quake-affected area, but out of Japan completely. When I bump into Janis Vougioukas from the German magazine Stern I find a normally calm man reduced to a trembling mess. “This doesn’t feel good” he says, before taking himself and his crew back to Tokyo.

According to a scientist friend of Independent correspondent David McNeil Japanese people in Tokyo who can read the foreign media are packing their bags and heading for the hills. I have no idea what to make of all of this so decide to carry on with work, for the time being at least.

The end of the day provides two experiences causing vastly differing emotional reactions. The first: we find a body among the shattered remnants of a coastal community. Then, drained and in desperate need of  food and sleep, we are accosted by a charming middle-aged woman in blue surgical gown. Nasa-san is the wife of a local gynecologist, and she leads through the most incredible site of devastation imaginable to reveal her husband’s relatively undamaged surgery. “Here, at 14.46 on March 11, just as the quake hit,” she say, “a baby boy was born.” What’s more, both survived the quake and subsequent tsunami.

Conflicted and confused I drive through sleety rain that turns into driving snow, toward Tokyo to be with my wife and 11-month-old daughter.

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