Wednesday, March 16, 2011

To People Worried About Us in Japan

A note to all of my friends who are worrying about us here in Japan.

We seem to be in a situation where the global media coverage has caused more panic abroad than in Japan, which is remarkble. While the concern is touching, my fellow expats in Japan and I are spending a lot of time reassuring friends and family. I'm going to try and write about what things are like over here for us.

For those of us in Tokyo, the earthquake on the 11th did relatively little damage. All of the horrific images and videos that we have seen have come from areas north of Tokyo – specifically the Miyagi, Iwate and Fukushima prefectures. Almost all of this damage was done by the tsunami that followed the earthquake, which demolished defenses that had never been designed for such an onslaught.

Life here in Tokyo has mainly been affected by two things.

The first is a power shortage due to power plants outside Tokyo being damaged or taken offline. The nuclear plants in Fukushima are an obvious example. We are all being encouraged to be conservative with our electricity usage and for certain sections of the Tokyo area, scheduled power cuts are taking place. I haven’t experienced one yet. The biggest impact of the power shortage is on the trains. Tokyo’s trains do an outstanding job of transporting a phenomenal number of commuters every day. At my local station at rush hour, a train comes along every couple of minutes. The number of trains running was reduced dramatically on Monday meaning that crowding was severe and it was very hard to get into work. I’m very pleased to report that the situation has improved drastically and most trains are running very well today, two days later.

The second is a succession of aftershock earthquakes that continue to rock eastern Japan. There are a lot of these (maybe 30 a day?) and some of them are quite strong – we had one last night that was magnitude 6.2. They’re very unnerving but none of them have been as powerful as the first earthquake and none of them have caused any damage in Tokyo.

As a result of both of these things, people in Japan are buying all of the rice, noodles, bread etc. available in supermarkets and shops. There are empty shelves everywhere. As a friend of mine said, this is not a food shortage, it’s a food hogg-age. If you arrive at the shop at the right time, just after the shelves are filled, you can get anything you want. If you don’t, they empty quickly. I’m sure this is temporary and will end soon. We are still getting newspapers and deliveries to our house every day, even Monday. Everything works but demand for staples has shot through the roof and supply isn’t catching up.

The final thing I’ll mention concerns the situation with the nuclear power plants. Understandably, everyone is very concerned about this. Unlike an earthquake or a tsunami, the dangers are less visible. At the moment, the situation with the Fukushima reactors is not affecting people in Tokyo at all. There is an evacuation radius of 20km and Tokyo is over 200km away. I know very little about nuclear reactors and their dangers but I see no reason not to believe the official advice being given by the Japanese authorities.

I have heard some rumours that the Japanese authorities are playing down the dangers. Having spent a lot of time in Japan frustrated at the overly worrisome and cautious nature of the Japanese people on so many occasions, the idea that the Japanese authorities suddenly want to take risks with the lives of their people seems absurd to me. The Japanese are the most diligent, conscientious and cautious people I know. I often feel that they are overly so.

Nevertheless, it’s not just the Japanese who think that there is no reason to leave Tokyo or Japan. From the advice issued by the British Foreign Office:
# We are actively monitoring the situation at nuclear facilities and urge British nationals to observe the advice being given by Japanese authorities, including the 20km exclusion zone around the Fukushima facility and to remain indoors, keep windows and doors closed and not use ventilation if you are between 20km and 30km from the facility.  This is consistent with the severity of the reported incidents across reactors numbers one, two, three and four, with the independent information that we have, and with international practice.  We are keeping our advice under constant review, taking into account statements from the Japanese authorities and informed by independent UK scientific and health experts.

# On 15 March the Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir John Beddington, spoke on the Today programme.  He said that this was an entirely different situation from Chernobyl; and that: "the exclusion zone of twenty kilometres… is entirely proportionate."  He stressed that people should not go into the exclusion zone set up by the Japanese authorities.  He went on to say that, apart from those living in the 20 km area around the reactor, there is no real human health issue that people should be concerned about.
Other embassies are issuing similar advice, with the notable exception of the French, who are encouraging people to head west from Tokyo. They have been severely criticized for this attitude but it did occur to me that they are probably more nuclear savvy than most…

UPDATE: A report from a conference call held at the British embassy featuring the chief scientific adviser to the UK government and other experts (Facebook link). I hope something official can be made public soon. Quotes:
* In case of a 'reasonable worst case scenario' (defined as total meltdown of one reactor with subsequent radioactive explosion) an exclusion zone of 30 miles (50km) would be the maximum required to avoid affecting peoples' health. Even in a worse situation (loss of two or more reactors) it is unlikely that the damage would be significantly more than that caused by the loss of a single reactor.

* The current 20km exclusion zone is appropriate for the levels of radiation/risk currently experienced, and if the pouring of sea water can be maintained to cool the reactors, the likelihood of a major incident should be avoided. A further large quake with tsunami could lead to the suspension of the current cooling operations, leading to the above scenario.

* The bottom line is that these experts do not see there being a possibility of a health problem for residents in Tokyo. The radiation levels would need to be hundreds of times higher than current to cause the possibility for health issues, and that, in their opinion, is not going to happen (they were talking minimum levels affecting pregnant women and children - for normal adults the levels would need to be much higher still).
UPDATE 2: The conference call described above has been transcribed and posted on the British Embassy web page. You can read it here.

UPDATE 3 (17 Mar 6:51 JST): US Embassy recommends 80km evacuation radius 

24 comments:

  1. Very nice text, thank you. Totally agree with you. I live in Tokyo and feel very tired explaining all these things every day to relatives and friends

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  2. Well said! Living in Kasai, I haven't even seen any food hogging. Went to the grocery store two days ago and it was the same as usual...no empty shelves, like I've seen pictures of in Tokyo.

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  3. Thanks. This is helpful how to explain the situation to my friends abroad.

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  4. wow...great piece! Well said! I was two secs from panicking last night. All of roommates have jumped ship and headed south for the duration. But, I remained behind to see which way the wind blows figuratively and increasingly literally. it's posts like this that let me know that my resistance to over-reacting to failing reactorsI is not founded and sound. I too will keep abreast of events as they occur but I wanted to take a moment to applaud you for your even mindedness! Good luck to us all!

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  5. Can I copy and paste this to my friends and family overseas? :-)

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  6. This is well said, thanks! (from a Tokyo resident)

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  7. From someone who lives in the states Thank You, can I copy and paste this please very well written. God Bless all Japan...

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  8. Was this before everyone had to evacuate from the nuclear plant..leaving no one to take care of it....like you said "I know very little about nuclear reactors and their dangers"

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  9. 50 brave workers remain at the plant working hard to resolve the situation

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  10. You're welcome too. I would prefer it if you sent people a link though.

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  11. they removed them

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  12. Apparently CNN are saying that but no one else is. It doesn't appear to be true:

    https://twitter.com/#!/HirokoTabuchi/status/47882019102928896

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  13. So, how many people are actually at risk if the reactors blow, and can you let me know which way the wind will carry and what type of radiation anyone can possibly be exposed to, and oh yes, have you found all of the thousands of people that are missing? I am so thankful for people like you that are actively helping when a natural disaster occurs. What would we do without such intelligent people such as yourself. We really don't need any of the experts, since your neighborhood is fine all is good in the world. Yes truly thank you.

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  14. My post is only in relation to the state of affairs in Tokyo. Obviously this is a horrific situation for people in other regions.

    With regards to your comments on the wind, there are some relevant comments in the update I just posted.

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  15. Nice write-up man. I hope you, the wife and baby are holding up well. Take it easy.

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  16. The national media in the UK (including the BBC) appear desperate to over dramatise the story, especially with regard to the Fukishima issue. They have brought countless experts on to the news bulletins and each and every one has down-played the immediate threats to public health. The news reporters always seem deeply disappointed to hear these balanced appraisals, more eager to play footage of people in Tokyo wearing masks, suggesting panic measures. Obviously this is complete mis-reporting, as anyone who has ever been to Tokyo knows that many people wear face masks outdoors anyway, to control exposure to pollen. This is a nice write up, but unfortunately I fear it will be swamped by the sensational and disproportionate reporting. Best of luck dealing with things

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  17. A very interesting and well written piece on the situation in Japan

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  18. Very nice article thank you.

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  19. Thanks for your post. I also live in Tokyo and can confirm everything you've said in this post. I've also seen the blog with the information from the British government conference call here: http://clamorousvoice.wordpress.com/2011/03/15/japan-nuclear-update-british-embassy/

    As you say, it would be nice for someone to make this official.

    A while ago I read an update from a reader on the BBC stating that harmful radiation had been detected in Yokohama. The source, apparently: "the headmaster at the school where my wife teaches received a phone call from a professor he knows at one of Japan's foremost science universities."

    Great! Let's get this wife's boss' mate on the TV to tell us more!

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  20. So what do you make of this report?

    http://www.infowars.com/alert-fukushima-coverup-40-years-of-spent-nuclear-rods-blown-sky-high/

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  21. It has been made official now. Check out my update above.

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  22. Very interesting reading....just have in mind that Japanese people also practise no hear, no see, no say... (I'm half Japanese)

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