Friday, July 15, 2011

Responses to the Japan Earthquake

Ever since the earthquake struck off the East coast of Japan in March, thoughts have been with the people of Japan. Whilst the loss of thousands from the tsunami was already a great tragedy, the factor of uncertainty surrounding the problems precipitated at Fukushima nuclear power plant seem to have cast an even darker cloud.

From my remote vantage point in the UK I naturally wondered about the situation ahead of my visit in July. I didn't really consider the risk until a native resident in Tokyo warned me not to travel, citing various sources that indicated dangerously high levels of radiation. For me to cancel a one week visit whilst 30 million residents had to stay seemed somewhat selfish, but I felt obliged to undertake the research. So I set off trying to understand a bit of theory, with the aid of sites like the ABC's of Nuclear Science, dipping into radiation readings (sometimes accompanied by a chart on levels exposure), and periodic visits to some official sites such as The World Health Organisation's FAQ on Japan's nuclear concerns, the UK's Foreign and Commonwealth Office advice on travel to Japan, and similarly the US Department of State.

I dipped into the arguments and counter-arguments from nuclear analysts. Among those conveying considerable concern I found Greenpeace and Arnie Gundersen at Fairewinds. I can't really assess his analysis, but he seems generally level-headed, particularly in the way he discussed the delapidated state of each reactor building. At least from this I could be informed about the main concerns: radiation leakage into water supplies (and hence the food chain) and the ingestion and inhalation of tiny radioactive 'hot particles' or 'fuel fleas' ejected into the atmosphere. For these to be valid concerns there would need to be reliable readings and research establishing the linkage in terms of carcinogenic effects. I couldn't find anything conclusive - both are subject to much debate - at least judging by one Google-chosen thread at the Department of Nuclear Engineering, UC Berkeley.

Having read, watched, and pondered, I cannot say I really know. In the event I assessed the severity of the situation as somewhat higher than TEPCO has described, but the risks for my particular visit as relatively low and I actually had some moral feeling that I should go. When I was in Japan I could see how deep the disaster has impacted on society: a particularly poignant aspect has been the departure en masse of people from overseas shortly after the disaster, which was regarded with sadness and disappointment. In practical terms, there's been huge changes in working practices: in order to reduce especially peak energy consumption employees are arriving at work earlier or working at the weekends, air conditioning units are being used sparingly, lifts are reduced in number, many services having to economise. In parallel to this, there is a huge amount of contingency planning - offices and meeting rooms are being cleared out and refurbished so as to install new safer furniture. Japanese people are already used to reconstructing and redefining, but the challenge of this disaster have been particularly severe.

Against this challenge, I would like to highlight the response from Prof. Shirota, the host for my research visit. In her home page for this year, she has written a message for her students, urging them to study hard in the safe environment of Gakushuin. On that page you can see as an immediate response, Prof Shirota is promoting a campaign to send salt supplies to horses abandoned in Minamisōma, Fukushima. In the long term, she is dedicating her life to education and research, motivated by the observation (to paraphrase), "Japan lacks natural resources; to recover from this catastrophe we can only enhance our human resources." I find this really admirable.

Facing life-critical moments become a matter of personal world-view or beliefs. For myself, I try to reflect on the law of Dependent Origination, which gives us karma and rebirth and Buddhist notions of protection. These are fundamentally internal methods of mind-heart development, which can maintain stillness and peace in the face of impermanence. But it may be harder than contingency planning as it needs constant practice.

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