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Asia-Pacific

Feb 16, 2012

If Fukushima goes to shit again, maybe Jesus is onto something

I don't see how any government can justify the use of a technology that can inflict so much chaos if it goes wrong, writes Paul Johannessen, a writer and videographer, in the Japanese town of Kesennuma.

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Tuesday, February 14. I awoke at 5.45am — up early to catch the Shinkansen-to-Kesennuma, a town devastated by last year’s tsunami that lies some 500 kilometres north of Tokyo. The job was to shoot video of the town, documenting the work of an American missionary group that had been delivering aid and hoping to spread the love of Jesus to the locals in their time of need.

That we could travel that distance, in around four hours, shoot interviews and other shots for another four hours and then return all the way back home to Tokyo, all in the same day, is testament to this society’s progress and ability to innovate. However, when I checked my email upon waking, I read the following:

Hi,

In case you don´t know, the Cesium fall-out at Fukushima increased dramatically this past couple of days.

Until 9:00 AM of 11/02/2012

Cesium 134 : 4.45 Mbq/km2
Cesium 137 : 6.46 Mbq/km2

However, 9:00 AM 11/02/2012 – 9:00 AM 12/02/2012

Cesium 134 : 98.2 Mbq/km2
Cesium 137 : 139 Mbq/km2

This is an increase of over 20 times.

The wind will carry some of this radiation to Tokyo today and tomorrow, so stay inside as much as possible and please wear a mask outside.

Also, apparently another heating gauge is showing an increase.

Troubling times …

Good morning, indeed. Rise and shine.

We arrived in Kesennuma having passed within 100 kilometres of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant on our way north. For the past 10 days or so, a thermometer in reactor #2 has been gradually showing increases in temperature within the reactor core. Yesterday, the same thermometer increased from about 70°  in the morning to more than 400° — beyond the limits of what the thermometer can read — by late last night.

There are however two other thermometers situated in the same core at the same level, and they register the temperature in the low 30s and have actually been showing a decrease in the temperature over the past few days. All of this started after TEPCO, the operator of the plant, had changed the way in which they were pumping cooling water into the reactor at the turn of the month.

Ever since they turned off one valve and increased the flow of another, the temperature abnormalities started to show. What they turned off were — from my understanding — sprinklers spraying water from above. What they turned up was water being fed in through a pipe lower down in the reactor. Since the readings started diverging from one another, they have actually increased the flow of water into the reactor through the pipe and claim that the thermometer registering such high temperatures must be faulty, and hence, nothing to worry about.

So move along. There is nothing to see here.

Strangely enough I struggle to believe anything that TEPCO say — or rather — as soon as TEPCO try to pass off something as not serious, my bullshit meter starts behaving abnormally. Today it went off the charts.

After the events of the past 11 months they already have no credibility left, so why would they then continue to seem to downplay events instead of showing an increase in caution? There is a saying in Japan, that the nail that sticks up will be hammered down.

Correspondingly, whistleblowing is not a big part of this culture — just look at the events at Olympus. When bad news is so blatantly unavoidable, then and only then will it be acknowledged. Until such a time, shame is avoided at all costs. Difficult news is denied or obfuscated no matter what. This is ingrained in the culture, from generations of practice. The feudal hierarchies of a simpler agrarian age now passed are becoming testament to this society’s inability to meet the needs of its people or the challenges of modern times.

But I digress. The thermometers in question are all located within the reactor core. It is accepted now that there has been a core meltdown within reactor #2, and that a large mass of uranium has melted through the metal reactor core and has come to rest much lower down in the surrounding concrete structure. Whether this blob of uranium has melted through that outer layer and entered the ground water is unknown — some people believe it has, while many believe there is likely still around a foot of concrete between the fuel and the ground.

Either way, it will be decades before they know for sure, because it is so radioactive that no one can enter. The thermometers then are much higher than all of this, back up in the reactor core, about three metres from the base of the core. Is it possible that some uranium remains in the assembly of the core, higher up and that it is no longer covered in water or is not receiving fresh cooling water after the pumping regimen was changed?

This really doesn’t strike me as an outrageous idea, so remotely impossible that it need not be considered. But we are left to speculate as the official press conferences tell us only that they believe the thermometer is broken.

And what of modern thermal imaging equipment? We can assess the composition of planets millions of miles away that we will likely never visit. Satellites read the weather and map the composition of metals deep within the Earth from tens of kilometres above us and yet I am supposed to believe that they cannot read the temperature accurately inside a building from even a few hundred meters away? Can you sense the frustration that many people here are feeling?

I happened to be in a meeting last night with many like-minded people, organising an event that will present art, music, films as well as discussions and workshops all based around the aftermath of last year’s catastrophe. There is a gradual, quiet groundswell of activism developing here in Japan and it is a little thrilling to witness it and be almost a part of it.

We got through our evening’s work and then were informed of the day’s events at Fukushima and the latest info about the rising temperatures in the reactor. Hearts sank so heavily you could almost hear it. Around the room eyes dropped, focusing on a forlorn abyss. It’s not quite panic any more, but more a hopeless kind of inevitability.

I don’t see how any government can justify the use of a technology that can inflict so much chaos if it goes wrong. No one wants to be in a job that has to deal with a situation like Japan has been dealing with for the past year. Not bureaucrats. Not labourers. Not politicians. No one. And when the issue of disposal of fuel still has not been answered, and can never really be sufficiently answered, then the whole operation is just too Quixotic for us mere mortals.

We can’t do this. We’re too fallible. Nature is too unpredictable. Leave it alone.If a wind turbine falls over in a field we can stand it up again. If solar panels fall off a rooftop we can put them back up. If a battery spills we can carefully handle cleaning up the toxic chemicals from the localised area where the spill occurred. But uranium and nuclear power? We’re not smart enough. We’re not diligent enough. We’re not immune enough to our own tendency to be corrupted by money and power. Collectively, we’re not up to it. So just put it away. The only guarantee of safety from the dangers of nuclear power is to not go there. Ever.

Meanwhile, back in Kesennuma there is this:

I’m standing in the concrete foundation of what used to be a house, or a business — someone’s livelihood. There is an enormous ship, parked in the middle of what used to be a town. The camera is trained on a Lutheran missionary who really does have his heart in the right place, yet is warning of the coming end of the world, and is glad that he is able to introduce new people to the love of Jesus and so on and so forth, and my mind is racing, contemplating yet again how will I get out of Tokyo if everything really does go to shit on account of that archaic industrial monstrosity full of poison that we, humble men, stupid men — basking in the glow of their industrial prowess — once built in Fukushima. Maybe this guy is onto something, I find myself thinking.

As we get on our train to return to Tokyo I read in “Twitterface” that there has just been another 5.9 magnitude shake down in Tokyo. Oh joy. Halelujah.

The one-year anniversary is just around the corner. Fukushima Daiichi seems to be preparing its own fireworks display to celebrate, but that would be a party that I really would not want to attend.

I will hopefully be returning to Ishinomaki, another tsunami-devastated town, with a harpist and shinobue (bamboo flute) player in tow, who will play a concert for all the locals who survived in a newly renovated community hall. That’s a party I would love to be at — celebrating that we can overcome adversity thrust upon us by nature. That we can regain our faith in life after such tremendous loss. Which all sounds way better than contemplating a whole other kind of disaster entirely of our own making.

Amen.

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