Archive for April, 2011

Some Thoughts on Fukushima

April 5, 2011

A few days before I left Tokyo, Japan’s Self Defense Forces made their first attempts to douse a fire in one of the Fukushima reactors.  The drama was broadcast live on NHK. Helicopters carrying huge scoops of seawater one by one approached the damaged nuclear power plant stretched out below them like a wounded dragon belching white smoke.  Dangling on long lines from the helicopters, the scoops released the water while the wind dispersed it into a fine spray that seemed to settle everywhere but on the source of the fire.  The helicopters looked like mosquitos, the scoops their long proboscises that could not quite reach the outsized target.  Scenes from some old Godzilla film came to mind:  The angry monster stomping through the streets of Tokyo swatting aside airplanes like so many insignificant insects.  Although the Fukushima plant is not a living creature but a device created by man himself, there is something archetypal about this battle of men to bring under control a monster of their own making.

The battle is not yet over.  As of this writing, workers are attempting so far unsuccessfully to seal up a crack from which radiation is thought to be leaking.  The rest of Japan waits and watches.  They attempt to resume the “normality” of their daily lives and go about their business as before.  But the cracks are there and won’t be mended soon.

Some people are moved by these events to reconsider nuclear power as the answer to Japan’s energy needs.  A recent JANJAN article by citizen reporter Umigata Masashi [<>%5D tells of an anti-nuclear power demonstration held in Tokyo on March 27 with 1,000 people in attendance.  He reports that while he has participated in such demonstrations before, this time was different because the future of Japan is now truly hanging in the balance.  The demonstrators called for cessation and eventual closure of Japan’s nuclear power facilities, even if this means all Japan’s energy needs cannot be met.  According to the reporter, the safety of food, water, and health must take priority.  He ends the article with this prayer:  “Oh God and Buddha, we beg of you, please stabilize and cool the nuclear reactors, contain the radiation and stop things from getting any worse.  We cannot take this anymore.”

Other people are moved by these events to come out even more strongly in favor of nuclear power, which to the Tree‘s editorial staff seems a premature move.  The internet is jumping with articles and posts by self-styled “experts,” whose main purpose seems to be to allay fears and keep everyone from turning against this form of energy production.  The Tree notes with interest, however, that if there is one thing certain about nuclear power at this moment, it is its uncertainty.  No one yet knows the outcome, short- and long-term, of Fukushima.  Isn’t it therefore too soon to be reassuring anybody about the safety of nuclear power?

Something else we’ve noticed in this literature is a tendency by some of these “experts” to describe their own pro-nuclear views as “rational” or “realistic” as opposed to the anti-nuclear view, which is guided by “panic” or “perception.”  A case in point:  In a March 24 set of interviews with “experts” by Fortune [<>%5D, the following comments appear:

From David Crane:  “It’s simply not realistic” to solve America’s energy needs by developing solar and wind power.  And “it would be an overreaction” to shut down every nuclear plant while safety issues are studied.

From Nathan Myhrvold: “You know, with nuclear, you always have to make the distinction between the perceptual and the real….From a perceptual standpoint, there’s an enormous amount of concern…about the events unfolding in Japan: Could this affect us? Of course it could. But there is no logical reason that this particular incident has to change the way we as a society feel about nuclear power any more than it should change the way we feel about living near the seashore.”  And, “Lurching from one disaster to another, acting in fear and panic, is a stupid way to run a society.”  And therefore, “I am confident that a rational decision would say, ‘Nuclear power is a super-important part of our future.'”

Even the editor, Geoff Colvin, introducing the interviews, climbs aboard the “rationality” bandwagon:  “the danger is that the world’s response to the events at Fukushima may not be rational.”

But just who are these “experts” who claim the label of “rational” for themselves, and who have appointed themselves to decide for the rest of us what is “logical” and “real”?  Well, David Crane is the CEO of NRG Energy, which owns nuclear power facilities in Texas, while Nathan Myhrvold is the founder of Intellectual Ventures, which invented TerraPower, a company developing a new kind of whiz-bang nuclear reactor.  In other words, they both have a major financial interest in seeing to it that nuclear power remains a viable option in America’s energy future.  The Tree wonders if these men are truly capable of unbiased “rational” thinking under the circumstances.  Just who is it that has a clearer view of reality here?  Those whose vision is filled daily with scenes of a smoking and intractable Fukushima Daiichi, or those whose vision is partially blocked by dollar signs?

As Myhrvold says, “We can’t afford to allow panic from a particular situation, no matter how tragic, to close our eyes to what could be superior technical solutions.”  Indeed.  And especially, we would add, if you’ve got a whole lot of money invested in those very same solutions.




The Warmth of a Maine Winter

April 3, 2011


Here in Maine it is still winter, and I miss the flowers that bloom in Tokyo even in the coldest of weather.  I stay indoors a lot, sitting by the wood stove trying to get warm.  Ever since the earthquake, I easily feel cold, and sometimes wake in the middle of the night shaking even if it’s warm under the blankets.  I am reminded of my Tokyo neighbor’s toy poodle who now refuses to go back inside the house, and when made to do so starts to shiver all over.  I guess it’s a natural reaction to large unsettling earthquakes.

But even if the weather is cold and snowy, warmth comes from the fire and from people.  A woman from Fed Ex came to the door the other day with a parcel addressed to me from one of my workplaces in Japan.  Noticing the return address she asked me, “Oh, do you know these people?  Are they okay?”  I told her I did know them; that I worked with them, and they were indeed okay.  When she found out I had just come from there, she started to cry.  “I feel so sorry for all those people over there!” she said, giving me a hug.

Concern for Japan is widespread in Maine.  According to an article in the March 23 issue of the Portland Forecaster , several Japan-related organizations in the Portland area have joined together to raise funds to help earthquake and tsunami victims.  Maine’s sister state is Aomori Prefecture, a relationship which began, according to the article, in 1889 when Aomori residents helped to rescue American sailors shipwrecked off their coast.  Now Maine wants to return the favor by sending funds to Aomori.

Other recent fund-raising efforts in Maine included a donation of $250,000 from L.L. Bean, which operates outlets in Japan, and origami lessons at the Bangor Mall, where for a donation of $2.00 apiece you could learn to create a beautiful object and appreciate Japan at the same time.


A third-grade boy I know donated $6.00 and created these origami items at the Bangor Mall booth.

Stellated Icosahedron

Asked what the experience was like, he told the Tree, “I loved it.  It was just amazing how everything fitted together.”

Any thoughts about Japan?  “I thought a lot about Japan, about how it is kind of broke down and we are helping Japan,” he replied.


Thank you, Mainers!


Flight Record

April 1, 2011

Sunday, March 20, 2011. 6:30 AM:  Leave home, walk to Nishiogikubo Station.  6:55 AM:  Arrive station.  7:01 AM:  Catch Sobu line.  10 other passengers in car; 3 people in the driver’s compartment.  Train moves along without delays, but something feels different about its movement, like walking on thin ice if a train could do that, as if every forward motion were tentative, as if the tracks in front of us might suddenly not be there.

7:17 AM:  Arrive Shinjuku Station.  Lights are dim on the platform and especially on the upper level which I pass through to transfer to Yamanote Line.  No elevators, few people for normally crowded Shinjuku, but after all it is Sunday morning.  Yamanote Line has more people but I can sit down.  7:45 AM:  Arrive Nippori Station.  More people here, lugging heavy suitcases, restroom not crowded but other users are foreigners like me.  Only short lines at the ticket windows for Keisei Skyliner express train to Narita.  I expected crowds here because the other routes to Narita, limousine buses and JR Narita Express are not running.  I get a ticket on the next train, departing at 7:58, and for a brief moment a small amount of all the panic I’ve been making an effort to keep inside spills out as I grab my ticket, glance at the clock and think I have less time to catch the train than I actually do.  I drop my ticket on the floor as I struggle to put away my wallet, keep track of my bags, and run for the ticket gate.

Upstairs on the platform everyone is waiting in orderly lines for the Skyliner to arrive, and I pull myself together and join the mass exodus of gaijin fleeing the Tokyo area.  Some young people, perhaps students from Korea or China, look as if they had brought with them all their possessions thrown together in a hurry into enormous backpacks.

7:58 AM:  Depart Nippori Station for Narita Airport.  Empty seats on train.  Pass Tokyo Sky Tree.  It’s still standing; unlike Tokyo Tower’s spire, it is unbent.  On its upper platforms stand four giant cranes, looking from this distance like giraffes displaced from the savanna.

7:45 AM:  arrive Terminal 1, Narita after smooth, careful ride through Chiba.  The platform is no more crowded than usual.  In my rush to catch the train earlier, I used my Suica (train pass) card to enter the ticket gate, forgetting to check the balance to see if it would cover the trip out to Narita.  Now when I tap the card on the electronic eye of the ticket gate, I am refused exit.  A Keisei employee wearing a white mask is standing at the gate and he waves me through.  After passport control, I glance back at the JR entrance and see that the fare machines, where I could have refilled my Suica card, are all shut down.  I guess that explains why the Keisei man let me through.

I am the only person on the elevator going up to the departure lobby.  The North Wing is busy but not crowded.  There are plenty of luggage carts, currency exchanges are open, and shops with food available.  All around me I hear a variety of languages or heavily accented English.  Other travelers are Americans, Europeans, or other Asians.  Just about the only Japanese people are the airport employees, and later a group of young people heading off on what looks like a study tour.  The check-in line is not long; the agents at Delta are pleasant, efficient, helpful.  The people at the currency exchange window and the baggage delivery service and at security are all smiles and helpfulness.  I am momentarily overcome with self-contempt for running away and leaving them to their fate.

At the currency exchange window is a box where you can donate cash to the Red Cross.  I ask the woman behind the window if this money will go to help the people up north, and she says no, just to the Red Cross generally.  Then she goes off and asks someone where I can donate to earthquake/tsunami relief, and comes back all smiles with directions to the special box set up to collect donations.  I find it next to the information booth at the entrance to the departure lobby.  The young women sitting there smile and thank me.  I turn away to hide my eyes and find myself face to face with a young Japanese woman pulling a suitcase behind her.  She looks at me in tears and thanks me in English.  It is all I can do to voice my heartfelt “You’re welcome.”

Unable to eat very much for the past few days due to lack of appetite, suddenly I’m hungry.  I’ve plenty of time on my hands since my flight doesn’t leave till 2:50.  So before going through security I visit a bakery/cafe.  While the shelves are not piled high with offerings, there’s plenty to choose from, and for ¥636 ($8.00) I get both breakfast and lunch:  one coffee, two small cheese rolls, and a ham/vegie sandwich.  A family of four comes in and sits next to me.  Are they French? I hear Bon? Bon! a few times, and “Fukushima,” but then the father sings, “Three is a lonely number,” and when they leave he says, Vamos!  They are replaced by a young woman who spills her coffee all over her coat.  I’m not the only flustered person around here!

10:30 AM:  Long lines at security.  In front of me are the young people heading off somewhere in a group.  Their families stand behind the barrier waving them off, all smiles—do they cover anxiety or express relief?  After a ten-minute wait, I am through security in seconds.  Shorter than usual lines downstairs at Immigration: takes only 5 minutes.

As my gate has not been assigned yet, I wander around aimlessly.  Only gates where departures are imminent are crowded, and there are plenty of empty chairs elsewhere.  On the departure board, several flights have been cancelled:  KLM, Vienna, Taipei.  My Delta flight is still on course.  Behind the departure board, a row of empty massage chairs, ¥200 for 10 minutes.  I sit down and get my legs squeezed and back pummeled.

Still three hours till boarding time.  The boarding area feels emptier than usual.  I drop by Doutor for coffee and to eat my sandwich.  Noon:  sitting in Doutor, suddenly the atmosphere changes.  People trickle in, and then more and more.  Pretty soon the coffee shop is full and bustling.  I leave and check the departures board.  My flight has been assigned a gate.  By the time I get there, nearly all the chairs are full.  Lots of young women with little kids, American military wives going back to the States, leaving their husbands behind on duty.

We board on time; the plane is full.  All airline personnel behave efficiently and professionally.  As we race down the runway for take-off, I finally allow the tears to flow.