Thursday, March 17, 2011

Aftershocks, Snow, and Reactor Fears

So sorry to everyone who has been worrying--we are (relatively speaking) fine here!  Gomen nasai! (bow)

I started  to post yesterday--but an early pick-up from school, regular English teaching duties, preparations for dinner *before* our scheduled blackout time, and the evening blackout made finishing posting difficult.  So--today.  Morning, while the kids are at school 'til noon, and we have power.  Today's blackout time for Group 3 is 3pm to 7pm.  It probably sounds bad to have rolling blackouts, but--quite honestly--when the power went off last night it made me feel better.  It made me feel slightly less guilty--guilty for being alive, for having food and water and heat and blankets.  And my family--all of them safe and where I can see them.  The power going off meant that at least there was *something* we could do.  When the lights went off at 7:00pm, sending the kids into fits of excited giggles to be rolling around on the futons by candlelight, I thought "Good!  Please send it to Iwate Prefecture--it's snowing and cold there!  They need heat!  Send the rest to Fukushima to power the pumps at the reactors!"

Trains are back up and running, though not at capacity. My husband said trains were crowded since JR and other private lines are running at 30%, or 50%, or 70% of normal (meaning that if, for example, a particular line usually runs 10 trains in an hour, now they'd only be running 3, or 5, or 7).  He went back to work Tuesday, but he's been coming home fairly early.  He was sitting in the bathtub last night when the lights went out.  Teddy helpfully shouted "Papa!  Teiden da yo!" ("power's out, Papa!").  But since there are no windows in our bathroom area, Papa already knew that.  

 I keep hearing helicopters overhead (though not nearly as many as there are to the north)--and expecting my mobile phone to go off again with an early quake warning.  They use the mobile mail network to send early warnings when quakes 6mag or above hit.  My phone suddenly flashes a blue light, buzzes and emits a loud "whoop! whoop! whoop!" over and over.  It gives you 20 seconds or so before the shock waves hit your area from the epicenter.  Night before last, a 6.0mag quake hit in Shizuoka Prefecture to the south of us at 22:31pm.  My phone immediately went off at 22:32, and about 30 seconds later the shaking started.  We felt about a 4 here.  Fortunately, we were all in bed (Teddy, bless his heart, slept through it--though Koshi and Cici woke up), so we just stayed on the futons since it's about the safest place to be.  Last night, I just slept with the phone under my pillow so I wouldn't have to get up to find it.  The main quake has triggered quakes (in addition to aftershocks at the original epicenter) in other areas quite distant from the epicenter of the 9.0mag quake.  Day before yesterday, the magnitude of the quake was upgraded to 9.0, moving it up from fifth place to fourth in the list of the strongest quakes of the century. 

This made me cry yesterday when I walked into the kitchen.

It's the ten-pound bag of rice my husband bought on Sunday.  Those reading this who can read Kanji will already be aware of what the two Kanji top left say.  Here they are closer:

It says "Fukushima"--that's where this rice was grown.  In Fukushima Prefecture, where the reactors are.  The saying is that "every grain of rice has seven gods".  Every grain of this rice now has several thousand lives.  You probably saw some of the paddies where this rice was grown on TV--as dark, muddy, debris-filled water raced across them.  Between the tsunami damage and the reactors, it will be a long while before any rice is grown in Fukushima.  Those who escaped with their lives have lost their livelihoods.

We will not waste one grain of this rice--and we will say "itadakimasu" before eating it.  That means "I humbly partake".

For those wondering about the reactors-- I wish I could offer a detailed explanation, but I am no nuclear engineer.  I, like most of you, have just now learned the word "microsievert".  I can say that radiation levels measured this morning in Yokosuka (where the navy base is--diagonally from here straight out to the coast) were 0.138microsieverts.  Which is low to normal--you can't even round up to 0.2 with that figure.  Tokyo has registered a small rise in radiation levels--which went down again within an hour.  From the Japan Times:
At a facility in Shinjuku Ward, a maximum hourly level of 0.809 microsievert was detected at around 10 a.m., but the hourly level went down to 0.151 microsievert after 11 a.m. These figures compare with 0.035 to 0.038 microsievert detected Monday, and 50 microsieverts absorbed when one takes a chest X-ray....
While the highest level, 0.809 microsievert, was observed around 10 a.m., the average between 10 a.m. and 11 a.m. was 0.496 microsievert per hour.
Even if one is exposed to that level for a year, the total would amount to 4,344 microsieverts. That compares with the 2,000 to 5,000 microsieverts per year that exist in nature, the metro government said.-- Japan Times, March 16

The thing that irritates me about media treatment of this event (and any other disaster like it), is that the relatively sane reporting in the paragraphs above are from an article with the title "Radiation levels spike in Tokyo; Capital still safe says Ishihara".  They couldn't have said "detected" instead of "spike"?   I don't mean to imply that the situation with the reactors isn't serious--it is.  But the media has no business using panic vocabulary when there isn't anything for people living at a distance to panic about.  So far, the Japanese government has been extremely cautious--they made people living near the reactors evacuate as soon as they were aware of the problem (on top of all the other problems ), and increased the mandatory evacuation radius as the situation worsened.    Radiation levels are high--around the plants.  Workers have had to leave because of radiation levels around the plants, as did a Self Defense Force helicopter which was to have dumped water into the suppression pool of reactor 3.
On TV right now-- there are SDF helicopters dropping seawater onto the reactors right now.  They have fitted the bottom of the helicopters with lead, and the pilots are wearing protective clothing and are monitoring radiation levels in real time.  Each helicopter will make a run or no more than 40 minutes to limit exposure time.  There are white plumes of smoke rising from reactors 3 and 4 suggesting that water has evaporated from the pools and the rods are exposed.  "The aerial spraying operations have started at 9:48am after being delayed" (typing what I just heard on TV).  They are also going to use a police cannon to shoot water onto and into the plant reactors. A representative from the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency just said they should have some power this afternoon, which will help the cooling operation (they'll be able to use the pumps to pump in seawater).  I hope it's in time.  The defense minister is going to hold a press conference in a little while.  The winds are blowing toward the southeast and should continue 'til Friday (i.e.--out to sea).

Reported on NHK just now:  4377 confirmed dead, 9083 missing.  1545 confirmed dead in Iwate Prefecture.  2244 confirmed dead in Miyagi Prefecture.  533 confirmed dead in Fukushima Prefecture--a number that hasn't changed for two or three days,  I assume because they can't get in to search for survivors because of radiation levels and mandatory evacuations.  336,000 refugees in shelters, where the temperature dropped below zero last night (and it snowed all night).  And we have to be grateful for that, because the winds bringing the winter temperatures and snows come from Siberia to the northwest, blowing toward the southeast, carrying radiation out to sea.

In any case--as the stock market amply proves-- people are easily panicked, and the media has an obligation to report necessary information during a crisis, not to selfishly pump up their own bottom lines with panic-button-vocabulary. 

Fears of another high-magnitude aftershock (through the end of the week) are triggering panic-buying in Tokyo, Yokohama, and other prefectures near the tsunami zone. bread (and that's just in the Circle K-- large supermarkets are also out)... be continued (I'll finish writing "Panic Shopping" and try to post it tomorrow--our blackout time is coming up and I have to get things ready for dinner before the power and water goes out).


  1. Thank you Amy. Your description of Hubby's blacked-out bath was the first laugh I've had out of all this. (A small grin at your use of " 'til", too. Coincidence, or did my little grumble the other month prompt it? :-) ) The reactor situation sounds vaguely promising, too, if they do manage to get power to the pumps.

    The death-toll ... ugh, what can anyone say? It's better than it might have been, but still ... ugh.

    Totally agree about the press. Sensationalism rules the day, and damn the panic it might cause. The right to free speech carries, or should carry, the responsibility for the consequences.

  2. Hello from Switzerland. These few words to tell you that we are numerous here to have all of you in our thoughts. We are keeping our fingers crossed that all will be better soon and that the situation will improve quickly. Good luck to all of you. With warm wishes. FG

  3. you know, before this, a whole nuclear disaster brought about by an earthquake never occured to me. It's probably because i live in a pretty earthquake-free area and also because i'm pretty oblivious to nuclear power in general.

  4. Thanks for a sane report. From what I have heard scientists saying on the radio & TV here in the UK, the situation seems to not be dangerous outside the exclusion zone & certainly not dangerous in Tokyo.
    The following may be of interest -
    The major problem seems to be the inability of the company running the place to give out proper & clear information as to what was happening as far as they could ascertain, & what they proposed to do. It is not as bad as Chernobyl.

    As for the power cuts - we had that in the 1970s when I was a child due to the oil crisis. It taught me the importance of saving electricity & increased my environmental awareness. The slogan was SOS - Switch Off Something. Ever since I habitually switch off lights when I leave a room.

    Keep smiling!


  5. Thanks for this on-the-ground information. I'm saddened about the large loss of life. I thought at the outset that it would have been fewer, but of course even one dead is an enormous tragedy for that person's friends and family.

  6. Thank you so much for posting these updates. I know so many online folks are thinking of you often. I am so glad you can be safe with your family.

    I hate to think of all those people in the north dealing with the cold without shelter. And those people working at the nuclear plant risking their lives to contain that fuel. My heart just goes out to those brave people.

  7. Oh Amy. I shudder to think what is ahead for some Japanese communities. How do you put a community back together when so many of the essential pieces are missing? How do families heal when half their members are gone? I try to think about what it would be like to have such a disaster happen here in my neighborhood, everything demolished, people dead. How can people just go on? Could I?

    Oh, I love my house but I could easily go on without it. I like my yard and garden and property, but could with nary a look back pick up the pieces and move forward. But the people? Those are Irreplaceable. With my wife and son gone, could I survive? Could I ever move forward? I don't know the answer to that, but I truly don't think I'm strong enough. I just don't think I'm that tough.

    But people are more resilient than most of us give them credit for. Life does go on. Saddened and scarred and with herculean effort people will survive. But the pain they are going through now and the pain and scars that will ever be with them breaks my heart. These are the times that you wish that there was a God so there would be something you could do, but alas, that road is illusory.

    I wish you the best Amy and family. There is no guilt in retaining what is most important that is your family. There is no shame in being happy that you and yours are unharmed as long as we feel for the others who have lost so much. These are the times when we need to hold them closer and appreciate them more. This reminds me of one of my favorite poems by Robert Frost.

    I could give all to Time except – except
    What I myself have held. But why declare
    The things forbidden that while the Customs slept
    I have crossed to Safety with? For I am There,
    And what I would not part with I have kept.

    I have read that verse a thousand times and it still effects me as strongly as the first time. Life is beautiful and fleeting and never do we realize that more than now.

  8. Daz-- 'til is totally because of you:-)

    Switzerland-- vielen Dank! Mille mercies! Thank you so much for your kind thoughts, and for taking the time to express them here. Please comment anytime!

    Sarah-- I think they thought they had enough redundancies to be safe. And they probably did. But a 9M quake followed by a monster tsunami and 6 or 7 huge aftershocks is pretty much Nature's way of saying "bwahahaha, mankind! Redundancy, Reshmundancy!"

    Dominic--you're right, this is no Chernobyl, and wasn't caused by human error. The information being given out is confusing for people I think mostly because they just don't know what to make of the numbers since they've never heard sieverts and becquerels quoted before. Since the numbers are unfamiliar, people are forced to rely on the source of the numbers for their interpretation as well, which makes people... not want to trust the numbers. Here's the one to remember: o.1microsievert is a banana. Thanks for the excellent links!

    Jerry-- I can hardly bear the numbers, and I knew at the outset that they would go up sharply because of the Tsunami (which didn't make it any better). It's the continually low number of confirmed dead coming from Fukushima that worries me-- it means they can't get in to search for people because of radiation danger.

    Lynn--you're welcome. I'm glad to know that others find my posts useful or informative, even if written mainly from a personal standpoint. And the weather--I can hardly stand to watch the forecast and see snow for Iwate, Fukushima, Miyagi. All I can think of is, what about people still trapped under rubble? What about the many elderly who live in that area and are now in shelters because they don't have anywhere else they can go?

    KK-- thank you. That is so beautiful. Watching the news, I am continually struck by how many old people survived, and how many of them have lost children or grandchildren. It just breaks my heart. I watched a 70-year-old man in wellies back at his home, shoveling out garbage and debris. I was just astounded at how strong he seemed ( a farmer, probably, but...). I wish we didn't need disasters to remember how unspeakably precious this one life is that we have.