I have been collaborating on some research to assess levels of internal exposure to Cesium in residents of Minamisoma, Fukushima prefecture, and today the results have been published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (paywalled), along with news reports in the Washington Post amongst other media outlets.

Minamisoma is a small town located mostly just inside the 20-30 km “stay-indoors” zone around the Fukushima power plant, and is one of the closest towns to the plant that isn’t under a long-term evacuation order. Minamisoma Municipal General Hospital began to assess internal exposure to Cesium in August last year, and we report on the first year’s assessment of just over 8000 residents, finding most had no measurable levels of exposure (38% of adults and 16% of children). Those who were exposed had generally low levels of exposure. Although calculating the equivalent dose of internal exposure is a bit tricky and controversial, the lead author estimated the maximum at about 1mSv, and suggests this is about the equivalent of half a chest X-ray. The linked Washington Post article describes some other comparisons and gives the opinions of other experts in the field who know more about these kinds of calculations than I do. We also observe that the levels of exposure less than one year after the Fukushima disaster are much lower than those observed even several years after Chernobyl, despite the fact that supposedly similar amounts of radionuclides were released into the atmosphere. Our suggestion is that the combination of early evacuation and comprehensive food monitoring and control were key to containing the effects of the disaster.

These results suggests that in many ways, the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant explosion is far from the worst aspect of the disaster that hit Fukushima prefecture on the 11th March, 2011. I have visited Minamisoma before and previously put up a post describing the destruction at the seaside and some of the difficulties the town faces, and I hope that this research will serve to give some perspective to the severity of the various problems the town faces. I have now been given a two year grant by the Toyota Foundation to continue research (in collaboration with the local hospital), monitoring the radiation exposure of the residents and conducting a broader needs assessment of their health needs and the ways in which their mortality risks have changed since the earthquake. As I said in my previous post, the experience of these communities in Japan is of value to other countries with a similar aging problem that might experience similar disasters, including possible nuclear accidents, and it’s important both for the people of Minamisoma and for other communities at risk of earthquake, tsunami and nuclear accident that we more clearly understand the best potential policy both for preparing and responding to these kinds of disasters. Hopefully this research will benefit both the town’s residents, and policy-makers in other places who face the potential of similar catastrophes.

The coastline of Minamisoma city, one year on

It’s a year today since the earthquake and tsunami that devastated Japan’s Tohoku area, and this weekend the people of Japan are pausing to reflect on what happened then, how it affected them, and what could have been done differently. The Japan Times is holding a one year memorial special, some of which is available in English. I thought I’d do a brief review and give some of my own thoughts on the last year before I head out to the memorial.

My own experience of the events of that day was perhaps more distant than most, because I was in Tokyo and I spent the entire afternoon cut off from any form of news or current events, since I was walking across Tokyo and had no knowledge of what was happening a few hundred kms to my North: but for a single message from my partner that somehow slipped through the congestion to my phone, I had no idea that anything bad had happened – it was just a confusing afternoon of earthquakes and failed trains as far as I was concerned. Then, of course, the next few days were full of power cuts and confusion and some very scary aftershocks, so after a few days I bailed by Shinkansen to Beppu, and it was then that I realized that the rest of Tokyo was in a state of panic, which I described here. I came back a week later and by then everything had died down, recovery had begun and although things were still chaotic in the north east, nothing seemed very different in Tokyo.

Now of course everything is much more measured and calm, and media coverage has turned towards learning lessons from the events of that day. The most obvious lessons concern disaster preparedness, especially for the heavy industry and energy sector, which needs to be built on the coastline. It seems possible that these catastrophic tsunami hit the area every thousand years, and although no one knew that a year ago, it does seem that there was some awareness of the tsunami risk in the area. My partner volunteered with the Peace Boat recovery team in Ishinomaki for a week, and while she was cleaning beaches there they stumbled upon a series of tumbled cairns that had been erected a hundred years ago. Written on them was a warning not to build homes around them, since a tsunami had reached their location a hundred years earlier; this warning had been ignored. It’s not just the big power plant makers who ignored the possible seismic risks in the area.

I think this event contains messages about disaster response in an ageing society that extend far beyond Japan. The affected region has a very old population, and we’re discovering that disaster response for such a population is necessarily different. Just as the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina showed that populations with a high prevalence of chronic illness can suffer quite terribly from the loss of modern amenities, even if they’re quite young, so this disaster showed that elderly populations need special responses that take into account their frailty, the dangers of moving them, their ties to homes that they may have lived in for their whole life, and their particular chronic illnesses. On the one hand there was a need to evacuate populations from the fallout of the nuclear accident; but on the other hand, many of them had nowhere to go and no desire to leave the place of their birth – and little long term threat from radiation. Should the response to a nuclear accident be tailored to the population surrounding the plant? Chernobyl was surrounded by a young population with many children, but Fukushima is characterized by a very much older, more settled group of people who are at low risk of radiation-related illness. Should they have been treated differently? In such a period of chaos, perhaps a more tailored and nuanced evacuation response would have been in order.

I have become involved in some research about this and other issues in the town of Minamisoma city, and I’m hoping to explore them in more detail this year. I have visited the town once, when I took these stunning pictures, and although disaster response and radiation epidemiology are not my specialty I’m hoping to contribute in some small way to understanding how the response to a disaster of this kind should be handled in an ageing society. China is going to be ageing rapidly under the influence of its one child policy, and it is not only prone to earthquakes in some regions but also has a large nuclear power program. The UK and France have nuclear power and an aging population, so I think the lessons from Fukushima will extend to those countries as well. What we learn from Japan may be instructive for those countries in the future. Tonight on NHK I watched a documentary about the 4000-odd American marines who responded to the initial tsunami and helped to save lives all along the coast, and this show made clear to me that even the most developed and richest countries are not necessarily able to handle events like this in isolation. I hope that lessons learnt from this event will help us to prepare for future events on the same scale, to respond rapidly and effectively to minimize disruption and loss of life.

Asia has seen huge loss of life from natural disasters in the last 10 years – the Asian tsunami of 2004, the floods in Pakistan, a couple of nasty earthquakes in Iran and then last year’s floods in Thailand. Let’s hope that the 2011 tsunami will be the last such horror to visit the region for a long while, and that any lessons to be learnt from Japan’s experience don’t have to be acted on anywhere for a very long time.

Yesterday (2:46pm) one week elapsed since the earthquake of north eastern Japan wiped out  a large portion of the eastern seaboard and threw half of Japan into (orderly) chaos. This post is a roundup of some of the things that have happened in that time, as seen from inside Japan. As foreign media become increasingly detached from reality, and information about events here goes through more and more permutations across news services, I thought it might be a good idea to give a perspective based on what the media within Japan, and those Japanese people I know, are seeing and saying about the disaster. This is all being digested safely from my armchair in my partner’s house in steamy Beppu, but I’m returning to the thick of it (well, to Tokyo) tomorrow. As always, some of this information is based on my understanding of Japanese newscasts so needs to be taken with a grain of salt. A lot of it is from TV reports so unreferenced.

Commemoration Ceremonies

Workplaces and institutions across Japan paused yesterday at the moment of the quake to commemorate the destruction. In some cities in the affected areas sirens rang out for the duration of the pause. These moments were in some instances filmed and broadcast, and afterward visibly moved participants were interviewed. Everyone is well aware of how momentous this moment of destruction was.

Graduation Ceremonies

Schools around Japan are holding their graduation ceremonies this week, and in a much more somber tone than is usual. In the earthquake-affected region the students are unable to attend proper ceremonies because the halls have been destroyed or pressed into use for evacuees; they can’t wear kimonos or suits because they have no possessions, and no kimono shops are open. So we have seen footage of students receiving their graduation certificates wearing tracksuits, in their classrooms rather than in front of their peers in a big hall. These have been very emotional and somber events, with even the school principal crying in his speech in one televised event (I cannot imagine an event serious enough to make my school principal show any emotion, let alone tears). Graduation ceremonies always involve some star student making a speech about the future, but this year’s have a grim cloud hanging over them that gives those speeches new meaning. Some universities in Tokyo have postponed or rescheduled graduation ceremonies, especially if they involve many foreign students who are delaying their return to the country.

Rolling blackouts

Tokyo and other parts of Eastern Japan have been subject to rolling blackouts and requests for reduction in energy use to allow the power system to cope with the simultaneous loss of six reactors. Mostly these blackouts have been cancelled at the last minute, because energy conservation has been sufficient, but it has led to reduced opening hours for shops, and the energy conservation has disrupted the transport system, so many people are staying home. This is why I am in Beppu; given 4 days’ leave to work from home, I figured I could do it from somewhere a little more geologically reliable – right now it’s better to be in the neighbourhood of a dormant volcano than an active fault [aren’t the geographical choices facing Japanese people just great?]

Foreign Panic

The foreign media being somewhat overhyped about the whole thing, and some governments rather overly panicky – especially about radiation – there has been a lot of panic amongst foreign residents of Japan and their families overseas. Beyond the messages of concern [thanks everyone, much appreciated!] many foreigners have been receiving desperate pleas from family to leave. Americans, particularly, seem to be vulnerable to this (what is CNN showing over there?) I know of one American living in Beppu who has fled the country even though she is 1000 kms from the danger zone, and several others who are being bombarded with panicky pleas from their family in the US. Britain has laid on charter flights to evacuate Brits from Tokyo, and the US has suggested an 80km exclusion zone around the Fukushima power plants (which, wisely, the Japanese have not bothered to implement). The Australian government has been more measured, suggesting merely that Australians avoid visiting Tokyo due to disruptions in essential services, the threat of aftershocks, and possible radiation hazards. The WHO on the other hand says that there is no reason to avoid visiting Tokyo or to leave.

Many foreigners are desperately scrambling to leave the country, so there is a 6 hour wait at the immigration department in Tokyo for re-entry permits, the airports are clogged and tickets are hard to find. Even in Osaka… Others are just popping out to Korea for a few days, though how this will help protect them from a radiation menace they think will stretch as far as Beppu I don’t know…

Social Media

Social media have come to the fore as agents for the dissemination of clear and useful information in this disaster, and for helping people remain in contact. Facebook posts an information header on the pages of all Japanese users, in 4 possible languages, giving up to date information on blackouts, train schedules, and other information. It also actively combats rumour and panic, putting up advisories on inaccurate chain emails and panic shopping. They also put up a very informative report on a meeting between the British ambassador in Tokyo and the UK Chief Scientist, dispelling many myths about radiation. Sadly, the British Foreign Office isn’t reading a Japanese facebook.

Facebook has also been useful for keeping in contact with each other and overseas contacts. My friend in Iwaki was able to tell everyone about his survival in one sentence through facebook, after his phone charge died; another friend changed his profile picture to a map of Japan, showing clearly how far he was from the Fukushima power plant, so his US friends and relatives could get some context.

Skype has offered every Japanese account holder 25 free minutes to contact relatives, and the Japanese social networking site Mixi is offering both an information page and organizing fundraising for the disaster victims. Social media have been excellent in their handling of this crisis.

Work and Social Disruption Outside the Disaster Zone

Because it’s so hard to move around Tokyo at the moment, many shops are closed or running on reduced electricity, and the town has a very different feeling to three weeks ago when I arrived. The usual frantic pace of partying and shopping has died down. Many people are working from home, and my colleagues are treating the workplace as a dangerous excursion, with only two staff members going in once a day. No one wants to be far from home when the aftershock comes. Many large businesses have shut down for the week, and/or have rejigged their activities to send support to the North. The whole country has been submerged into a sombre mood, in which the frivolous ordinary lifestyle of a week ago has been, at least partly, suspended.

Corporate support

Big companies make up the backbone of Japanese economic life, and they have responded rapidly to the disaster. Yamaha alone is sending 500 diesel generators into the disaster zone, and another company 1000; NEOS Gasoline have sent a fleet of tankers to carry petroleum, and many agricultural coops and smaller supermarkets have scrambled to reopen shops in disaster-struck towns. Throughout the tsunami zone since Tuesday, shops have been slowly reopening to try and resupply the locals. Nonetheless, the shattered infrastructure and blocked roads have made it hard to get any help into the area quickly. The government has even released stocks of salt from its strategic salt reserve [who knew countries had such things?] to help with the production of food. Many smaller companies are donating stocks to disaster coordination agencies and prefectural governments (individuals have been told not to do this), or sending skilled workers. Particularly, prefectural government staff have been sent from across the country to help with coordinating disaster efforts.

Cold Weather and Floods

After the tsunami came a cold snap that drove temperatures across Japan below zero. Here in steamy Beppu night-time temperatures were forecast to hit -2, and in the affected area -4. This came with heavy snow in the North. On top of this, the Spring Tide season started yesterday, leading to 8 days of above-average tide levels. The earthquake apparently lowered the coastal land by 40cm in the affected area, so tides are going to be particularly high this year and will probably inundate inland areas that would otherwise be safe. In some places the tsunami actually destroyed cities’ typhoon wave barriers – huge constructions of reinforced concrete that were smashed into pieces like lego blocks, further weakening coastal resistance to high tides and heavy weather. This is going to be a huge reconstruction task.

Evacuation, starvation and nuclear panic

Some tens of people have died in or during movement to evacuation centres, largely through the cold or lack of access to proper medicines. The self defence forces found one hospital in the exclusion zone of the power plant that had been abandoned by staff, with some 6 patients already dead. With no power supplies and limited transport in or out, some hastily-established evacuation centres have received no medicine before Friday. On Friday I saw an interview with a nurse who was the only medical professional in an ad hoc evacuation centre in a school, that had been formed by the local city office. They had no power, no lights, and only the medicine they could scrounge up from the immediate vicinity; and no way to get in or out for more. This nurse had spent 6 days managing the health complaints of 200 or so evacuees – including injuries – while waiting for some kind of help to get through. She had organized medical charts, lists of needed medicines, and treatment regimens as best she could, but had obviously run out of everything she needed by Friday, when the first self defence force supplies reached her. In the interview she was composed but clearly at the end of her tether. Can you imagine being forced to take responsibility for such a task, with nothing more at your disposal than your own ingenuity?

I think that the evacuation and resupply task has been made much harder by the nuclear panic, because people leaving the areas are clogging roads, and people unable to leave are scared to go outside to find the support material they need. Not to mention the occasional moments of callous terror evidenced in people abandoning their patients during evacuation. A more reasonable approach to nuclear terror is needed, I think. Which brings us to…

The Fukushima Power Plant

I have left this to last because of the controversy surrounding it in the international press. Eight days on, it still hasn’t entered a meltdown, and according to the WHO radiation levels outside the 30km exclusion zone are not harmful to health. On Thursday the self defence forces started water bombing it, and on Friday the fire department and defence forces started spraying it with water, including using special appliances from Tokyo that can spraydown into the containment vessel. Radiation inside the plant is high and there are concerns for the workers there, but it’s not out of control yet, and workers are not sent back to the reactor after they exceed 150 milliseiverts.

A professor interviewed on NHK this morning revealed that the design plans for Japanese reactors don’t cover an event of this magnitude, and no one had envisaged such a catastrophic failure, which basically consists of the complete destruction of all infrastructure within 50km, that is a collapse of the external electricity grid as well as all functioning roads and support services. I have heard that the reactor was built to withstand 8m waves, but the waves that hit it were well above that, and delivered with considerably more force than the reactor was designed for. Nonetheless all 6 plants are still standing, and 2 are in relatively good condition. And although they hadn’t planned for damage of this magnitude, the reactor team did a drill in November last year that involved patching in power from an external grid; they’re using this drill to set up the current external power supply, only they have to run power cables from high tension lines some distance from the plant (the only lines intact after the event). This isn’t a trivial task, since presumably they will have to find a transformer in the wreckage.

The description of the repair task being undertaken, given on TV this morning, was terrifying. All the pumps and electrical gear in the plants were submerged by the wave, and destroyed, so they need to repatch the electrical systems and then repair pumps; but repairing pumps requires getting power into them to diagnose problems. So they have 20 staff working in the least damaged reactors (1 and 2, I think), in the dark, wearing heavy protective gear, frantically trying to restore electrical function in heavily damaged equipment. This has to be done at a fast pace because they can only work there for 8 or 10 hours before they reach their radiation limit and have to be taken out. They also have to pause when the spraying of damaged plants would interfere with cable laying or cleanup.

It’s worth bearing in mind that before repairs could begin, cleanup had to happen. Before equipment could reach them, roads had to be cleared; before cables could be laid, places to lay them to had to be found and water had to drain away.

A lot of the foreign media have panicked over this situation and made a lot of accusations of poor planning, incompetence and confusion on the part of the company, as well as unclear communication by the authorities. The unclear communication is primarily coming from overseas (especially the Americans and the French, including some melodramatic poet in charge of EU energy policy who described it as an “apocalypse” – a phrase I think would be particularly insulting to a country that has seen more clearly than any other what nuclear apocalypse could actually look like). If one listens to Edano san, the PM’s spokesperson, he is being very clear and direct about the situation, which remains – despite the angstridden claims of the foreign press – largely under control, though not yet fixed, 8 days after it started.

As for poor planning – this plant was built 40 years ago, when the biggest quake ever to happen in the area was a 7.3 magnitude. It was designed to withstand 8m tsunami waves, but has survived much larger waves capable of throwing boats on top of schools. I don’t think that there would be a chemical plant or nuclear reactor on earth whose disaster plan includes a section on how to handle the complete destruction of infrastructure surrounding the plant, loss of all road transport facilities, swamping of all repair and support facilities onsite, and inability to bring in new staff for several days (or even food!) Under the circumstances, the staff on that site have done well, and we should all be very impressed by them. Plus, we should remember that radiation leaks from a plant like this aren’t that dangerous, even if it melts down, and focus on the real dangers in this situation – the huge numbers of people who are at risk of illness, hunger and exposure because a massive wave wiped out whole towns and cities.

And we should ask ourselves just how ghoulish the press are being in this situation, with their fixation on a disaster that hasn’t happened, in hopes (?) of having a compound tragedy to report on. Panic merchants and liars, in the circumstances, is my judgment.