Friday, March 18, 2011

Business as usual

Since the Great Tohoku Earthquake (as it seems to be called) and its aftermath is still attracting some interest, I thought I'd give an update about how things have progressed since then down in deepest darkest Kamakura and Yokohama, which are on the south side of Tokyo itself (K is 50km SSW of T, Y is about half way between the two).

Perhaps the most important thing is the trains, which were pretty chaotic at the start of the week, but are basically running now at between 50-100% service on most lines (and mostly near the top end). We were a bit embarrassed on Monday morning, when we arrived at the station to find all the JR lines in the area were shut. There had been no hint of this on the English language JR train status page, but it turned out that this page was not being updated at all! We have since started using the Japanese language page which is much more detailed and reliable, but I didn't think to check it then. So we had to turn round, go home and get on the bike to get to work. We had several visitors in different locations and with different schedules, so this caused a bit of a headache but it all worked out ok in the end. At this point our supercomputers (not just the 5MW Earth Simulator but two lesser ones) were all switched off to save power - initially for a week, but we have just heard they are off for the rest of the month at least. Horrors, we will have to think by ourselves for a change! It may delay IPCC runs for a while, but I think these were well ahead of schedule anyway and wouldn't be surprised if we still beat most other countries, so long as the power comes back at some time.

The rolling power cuts were announced over the weekend (12-13th) but didn't seem to materialise immediately, as power consumption is substantially lower at weekends anyway. They have, however, happened during the week more or less as planned. The schedule is presented as a series of overlapping 3h40 time blocks, and the actual cut seems to run for the middle 3h of this. We have gas to cook with, and even high power efficient LED lights from our bicycle (made by Lumicycle) so it's no hardship. All we lose is the internet, which is probably no bad thing! An unofficial projection of the cuts can be found here, and a map of the different groups here. TEPCO doesn't seem to release the timetable info publicly more than a day ahead, though. RIGC has actually been exempted from the power cuts - perhaps a quid pro quo for switching off the Earth Simulator. We have also heard that our Saturday night cut is expected to be cancelled.

On Tuesday we got an email message originating from the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism which requested that non-essential workers stay at home for the time being, mostly I think to avoid overloading the trains. Well, of course we are entirely non-essential being mere research scientists, but again with a visitor having just come all the way from the UK it seemed pretty essential that we make use of his trip. I've not seen any mention of this in the news, which is a bit odd if it really is official - there is far too much verbiage to wade though the Japanese language MLIT site thoroughly but nothing caugh my eye. It would certainly help to explain why Tokyo is a bit of a "ghost town". We heard the commuter trains were hugely packed at the start of the week thanks to the reduction in service, but they should be mostly ok now. We were not actually discouraged from turning up - I think JAMSTEC's position was really so people didn't feel pressurised into attending if they were worried or had other priorities. Some Japanese people with relatives in the western regions have used the opportunity to pay them a lengthy visit, and it's possible that some of the non-Japanese employees have left the country but I don't know of any who have gone for sure (I've been in touch with a few who have not gone). We do know of lots of other ex-pats who are now re-pats! (maybe they are ex-ex-pats, or ex2pats in the new acronym lingo that seems popular in scientific circles these days). It was certainly quiet last week and we didn't get a whole lot done but we did made good use of Andy's visit and avoided some of our local power cuts.

There is plenty of food in the shops, as I posted recently. Some shops have run out of things in the short-term - it's worth noting that Japanese supermarkets are really small, with only a handful of each item on display, so even a small mismatch between supply and demand can cause a sell-out. There is plenty of food in general, and even the hot items get restocked rapidly (eg see the comment on that post).

The UK Govt's Chief Scientific Advisor gave some very forthright advice that there was unequivocally no real risk from the Fukushima power plant, which also seems consistent with all the informed opinion I can find on the web. It was therefore disappointing that the Foreign Office said those living in Tokyo should "consider leaving the area". While not actually an instruction, it is entirely predictable that it would have been interpreted in this way by some. For example, the Mission to Seafarers used this as an excuse to withdraw it's Yokohama chaplain, who also happens to act as the Rector for the local English-speaking Anglican congregation in Yokohama Christ Church. If the good old CofE isn't prepared to offer support and leadership to people who are genuinely, if perhaps somewhat irrationally and excessively, worried and upset, it rather makes me wonder what they think they are for. It's not as if anyone is expecting them to do anything genuinely brave, like the TEPCO staff who are risking serious injury and sickness in trying to deal with the reactor. It's not supposed to just be tea and biscuits! We considered our position, and decided that any pre-emptive move would be a ridiculous over-reaction to what is only at worst a rather hypothetical and implausible risk, that we could deal with easily enough if it actually happened. Currently my biggest worry is that the UK Govt will strengthen its advice further, which could put us in a rather uncomfortable position. I actually wrote to a couple of people I know who may be in some sort of position to influence this, though I suspect they are too busy to even read my email.

While writing this post, an email arrived saying that from Tuesday 22nd, JAMSTEC is back to business as usual.


The Rational Pessimist said...

James: I think the embassy chnged their message because Beddington did a U-turn over the risk of a fire in the spent fuel rod pools, which as I mentioned before he didn't address in the original embassy briefing;

So it was a quite understandable action by the embassy. Good news is that they appear to be stabilising the spent fuel rod pools although we are getting no information on no 4.

The IAEA continuous updates are now proving one of the most reliable news sources on the issues.

The Rational Pessimist said...

And Beddington's revised view and explanation is now on the embassy web site:

EliRabett said...

Eli was, as his wont when MR is away downing a rather good domestic IPA when one of those hyper under thirties at the bar went on and on about how she was laying in iodine pills. (This, of course, in Washington, DC, half a world away).

Well it was happy hour so Eli drank his beer. Bad bunny, but you can't save the world without a second beer.

James Annan said...

Justin, but even in that case:

"And even in that worst case scenario, and I would emphasise that this is an extremely unlikely case, even if that happened the level of radiation around Tokyo would be extremely modest. Although there would be radiation increases, even in this extreme case, the effect on human health could be substantially mitigated by just taking very simple precautions. By essentially staying indoors whilst the plume of radiation passed over, not having your ventilation on, and keeping your windows closed. These measures would mitigate any significant risks to human health."

Eli, yes it's amusing to hear of the big pill sell-out, apparently there is a trickle of people making themselves ill with them - hopefully you won't actually have a local problem that requires their use while there is a shortage!

It is both a blessing and a curse that radiation can be detected at levels so many orders of magnitude below any possible health risk. I suspect we'll be hearing about contamination of the food supply for a long time to come.

The Rational Pessimist said...

Point taken. But if I have a quibble it is that again Beddington has made a very firm statement (but a very different statement from the original) without making himself available of all the information. Every time an 'expert' does this they devalue the impact of their future message and reduce people's ability to calibrate risk where they have to outsource their risk assessment to an 'expect'.

In Beddington V1.0 there was no reference to the spent fuel rod pools even though at that time this issue was being openly discussed elsewhere.

In Beddington V2.0, there is no reference to the fact that Reactor 3 uses MOX rods although this is being picked over by nuclear experts in the Japanese media and makes a fire in reactor pool 3 a very different kettle of fish than a fire in reactor pool 4 (his big focus).

And reactor 3 is highly troubled. You can get a good sense of the tasks ahead from CNIC here (skip the intro and start at 6:30, you have to put up with the German ad at the beginning).

Fukushima is still a bit of a Gordian knot in that a contamination event in any one part can preclude the ability to stabilise other parts. So we cannot yet rule out a fire in pool 3, because their ability to pump water into it is contingent on reactors 1 through 3 not shutting down the site through another radiation leak.

More important, so much of the commentary appears binary. It is either "nothing to see here, and move along please" or "we are all going to die". I think the situation is a lot more nuanced. For example, so much of the analysis suggests that as long as Roppongi is OK, the impact of any leak can be discounted to zero. But a wider leak incorporating Ibaraki and Tochigi would have massive consequences for the Japanese economy.

And yes, we are more likely to die on the way to buy an onigiri from a convenience store, but that is not really the point.

James Annan said...

Bloody spam block ate your comment again! But at least I realised this time.

I agree that the rapid changes in advice - not due to a changing situation, but merely due to lack of information - is not ideal, but OTOH the threat is still a long way from being a meaningful one. To us. I also agree that contamination further north is still a serious issue, but it's not one that requires me to leave. The comparison with the risk of a dodgy rice ball with a nasty surprise in the middle is certainly relevant to that issue. Or even the risk of the journey to get the dodgy rice ball...