Tragedy in JapanPosted: March 19, 2011
The human crisis unfolding in Japan is mounting as radiation leaks impact the northern country side. The northern part of Japan has historically been on the short end of the economic stick for some time. Japan will now have to deal with the consequences of some of its policy decisions. This should serve as a cautionary tale to other developed countries with aging populations living in rural and less economically viable areas. The need to care for homeless and elderly people in Northern Japan continues to challenge its crippled infrastructure. Many fear they will never return to their abandoned homes and communities. NPR reports that a women’s hospital that primarily cares for newborns and pregnant women has been doing duty covering elderly and other people on the border of the evacuation zone. The hospital is trying to close and needs help evacuating its patients.
The Haramachi Central Obstetrics and Gynecology hospital is in the town of Minamisoma, right on the border of the exclusion zone. In recent days, the hospital has not just been taking care of mothers and babies, but also elderly people and anyone else who had not evacuated. The imposition of the exclusion zone has meant that many larger hospitals in the area have closed already, and this hospital has been left to care for anyone needed any kind of medical attention. Now, it too has run out of medicine and Dr. Kyoichi Takahashi, president of the hospital, says he is going to have to close, even though strictly speaking he doesn’t need to. “Those who are leaving the town are all in tears, saying they don’t want to leave. Some say it may be the last time they see us, and they’re worried they might never be able to come back,” Takahashi says. There are people in the exclusion zone who want to evacuate, but are not able to because they don’t have any gas to drive, he says, but the government doesn’t seem to have a comprehensive plan for getting everyone out. Takahashi paints a grim picture of the situation inside the exclusion zone, saying there are still bodies of people killed by the tsunami that can’t be recovered. He says his staff wants to carry on, but he thinks they just can’t do it any longer. News reports say at least two patients have died at Omachi hospital, also on the edge of the exclusion zone, from a shortage of medicine, and the hospital has almost run out of food. The military was due to transfer 90 of the 160 patients to another town Saturday. “Most of the patients now in the hospital are in serious condition,” says Keiichi Kobayashi, an administrator at the hospital. “The ones who are not so serious will leave, but it’s too dangerous to move the really sick patients.” The Japanese government is mobilizing civilian and military teams to help out. Officials have appealed for help abroad in dealing with the nuclear power plant and in humanitarian efforts to help the Japanese people.
Meanwhile, radioactive iodine has been found in milk and spinach produced in the area. Health threats to people in Northern Japan are mounting daily. Caesium has also been found in water. This is the contaminant that did so much damage to people, livestock, and crops around Chernobyl.
Radioactive iodine levels above Japan’s allowable limit have been found in milk in a town 27 miles from the Fukushima nuclear plant, officials said Saturday. Levels in tap water in Kawamata were below the limit, Kyodo News reported. But the level in milk raised questions about the safety of food and liquids in the area. The government has also announced traces of radioactive iodine were found in Tokyo’s drinking water, the Japanese government said Saturday. The radioactive substance, said to be below levels dangerous to human health, was detected in Tochigi, Gunma, Niigata, Chiba and Saitama prefectures besides Tokyo, and cesium was found in Tochigi and Gunma, Kyodo News reported.
Japan is a very small country with very high population density. Many areas in the north were already in decline as young people have increasingly moving to the larger, more southern cities. This has raised concerns about the viability of rebuilding the towns and cities in areas in the north. The Japanese people are obviously suffering with this tragedy and are still reeling from the effects of both the earthquake and tsunami. The NYT characterizes future building efforts in some of the tsunami-striken areas as “too late”.
“The young people left these rural communities long ago for jobs in Sendai, in Tokyo and in Osaka,” said Daniel P. Aldrich, a Purdue University professor who is an expert not only on the region’s economy, but also on the aftereffects of natural disasters like the tsunami. “These are declining areas. With an exogenous shock like this, I think it’s possible that a lot of these communities will just fold up and disappear.” Some have been hollowing out, albeit slowly, for a long time. Japan’s population as a whole is shrinking and graying, but the Japanese prefectures hardest hit by the tsunami — Miyagi, Fukushima and Iwate — often outpace the national trends, and their workers’ average incomes are shrinking as well. Kesennuma’s home prefecture, Miyagi, claims one comparatively prosperous hotspot: its capital, Sendai, a million-person city that boasts some technology firms and a far younger population. But even Sendai has prospered at the expense of the surrounding countryside, which is significantly poorer and older. Less than 19 percent of Sendai residents are older than 64, below the 22 percent national average. In contrast, over-64 citizens officially make up nearly 27 percent of Kesennuma’s population, and city officials say the total is closer to 30 percent.
The events surrounding the two natural disasters and the still unfolding nightmare at the Fukushima plant will undoubtedly change a lot of things for Japan. Nuclear technology had allowed Japan a certain amount of energy independence that other energy importers have not had. This may cause Japan to reconsider its mix of energy sources. The situation at the stricken Fukushima plant appears to have stabilized for the moment with power expected to be returned to the cooling pumps shortly. Still, reliable information is in short supply.
Tokyo Electric Power Co., owner of the power plant damaged in the worst nuclear disaster in a quarter century, said it will attempt to restore electricity to the facility today to prevent the crisis from escalating. Workers reconnected a power cable yesterday to one reactor at the Fukushima Dai-Ichi atomic plant to revive cooling systems knocked out after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. As the disaster entered its second week, Japanese troops and firefighters doused exposed units with water to cool nuclear material and reduce radioactive emissions. The facility hasn’t had a “massive radiation release,” and people outside Japan probably aren’t in danger of receiving harmful doses of fallout, International Atomic Energy Agency safety director Denis Flory said. Tokyo Electric said that cooling systems may fail to function even with power restored because of damage sustained during the quake and tsunami. “This is a necessary step because they’ve got to migrate from emergency-response mode, where they’re relying on unusual or improvised approaches, to a regular, engineered system,” Roger N. Blomquist, principal nuclear engineer at the U.S. Energy Department’s Argonne National Laboratory, near Chicago, said in a telephone interview. “The end state you want is to have the reactor and the spent-fuel pools cooled.”
Part of the problem with the information and the ability of TEPCO to seemingly avoid harsh realities it that Japanese government officials and politicians have historically had close relationships with large Japanese corporations. This has frequently come had a cost to the people of Japan. Many public resources are used to prop up the Japanese Corporate machine. This has allowed them to be more than competitive in the world economy and given industry a sense of both entitlement and arrogance. Will the Japanese electorate continue to passively support this type of industrial plan for the country or will they demand the government be more focused on the needs of the people for a change?
What is clear is that some new direction will be necessary to deal with the large number of elderly who will be dislocated from their homes and businesses due to this tragedy. Japan will need much help in dealing with the consequences of the natural catastrophes as well as the fall out from its decisions to use nuclear power plants which have now impacted its northernmost provinces so badly. This tragedy has struck an economically vulnerable area with a vulnerable population. How the Japanese government responds to these issues will be important. It’s also possible that the United States may learn many things from their experience since there are some real similarities here.
(Just a note: My exhusband was born in Chitose, Hokkaido which is on another island directly north of the hardest hit prefectures in the main island of Japan.)
update: I found this great schematic and update of the reactor at Fukushima here at brave new climate. It’s got a lot of hardcore data and statistics if you’re interested.
Last Saturday the the crisis level at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station was rapidly on the rise. Hydrogen explosions, cracks in the wetwell torus and fires in a shutdown unit’s building — it seemed the sequence of new problems would never end. A week later, the situation remains troubling, but, over the last few days, it has not got any worse. Indeed, one could make a reasonable argument that it’s actually got better.
Yes, the IAEA has now formally listed the overall accident at an INES level 5 (see here for a description of the scales), up from the original estimate of 4. This is right and proper — but it doesn’t mean the situation has escalated further, as some have inferred. Here is a summary of the main site activities for today, followed by the latest JAIF and FEPC reports.