Enduring Disaster: Reflections on the Anniversary of 3/11

What is it that this disaster wants to teach us? If there's nothing it wants to teach us, then what should I believe in? - Fukushima Poet Ryoichi Wago

March was falling apart. My girlfriend and I had recently broken up and we were to see each other at an academic conference in Montreal where our respective jobs were both sending us. A week before the event, Northeast Japan was hit by domino disasters: a record earthquake followed by a tsunami that would claim over 15,000 lives. Then Fukushima’s coastal reactors blew, turning once bustling cities into ghost towns and sending radiation into the water supply of one of the most populous cities in the world. My girlfriend’s family and friends in Japan were outside the disaster zone but I was rattled. At the conference, I cringed at the banal conversations of the academics who lingered in the hallways, talking about their various job appointments.

I bailed on two colleagues my coworker Jim and I were supposed to meet early one morning when my emotions frayed after too little sleep and too much news coverage of the disaster. One started making small talk about her child’s school party, muffins or something. I turned to Jim with tears in my eyes, shook my head and left the building without a word to our colleagues.

I held onto my former girlfriend like a lifeboat though, as a Japanese citizen, she certainly had more to be concerned about than I did. For her, Fukushima seemed as far away as it did to me, outside her world. Writers from Fukushima would later reflect on the disconnect they felt from the rest of the country, the sacrifice they endured so that places like Tokyo would have a reliable food supply, a reliable energy source.

Despite my initial dismissal of the academics at the conference, I was humbled to discover how many people there were directly affected by the event but still carried themselves upright while I was blubbering and sulking. Our neighbor in the booth next to us, a boisterous, friendly Brit selling books for the UN had felt the earthquake in Tokyo where he lived with his family right before jetting to the conference. Each day the news got worse and worse, the American government was advising citizens to leave the country, yet he continued to affably greet customers at his booth.

Still, there was anxiety under his buoyant demeanor. We talked generally about the disaster but he was mostly preoccupied with Anderson Cooper’s coverage on CNN. “Anderson 360!” he scoffed. “What kind of a name for a show is that!?”. He’d arrive to the exhibit hall in the morning, take a quick glance at his inventory, and ask us, “Hey, did you see Anderson last night? With that Geiger counter around his neck? God! What an ambulance chaser!”. He laughed haughtily at Anderson’s antics, his cowardly jolt when yet another reactor exploded, his war zone-like coverage from a faraway Tokyo rooftop.

On another day, an academic from Hiroshima University revealed before his panel presentation that his family was evacuating from Fukushima Prefecture as we sat there listening to his dry presentation on ASEAN. He sat back down in the sparse audience after his talk where I could see his mussed hair. He took photos of the other panelists as they got up to talk and a small cellophane-wrapped lip balm stamped in Hiragana fell out of his pocket unnoticed onto the floor. This little glimpse of his private life devastated me. What other modest nothings of life were hiding in the folds of these academic posturings? What other secrets were those I walked among hiding?

Jim and I were bewildered when the woman at the other booth next to us, representing a foreign policy think tank, began playing a DVD that featured various horrible things that were occurring in the world: genocide, climate change, global epidemics, and the timely kicker: the threat of nuclear proliferation complete with footage of an atom bomb test and a creepy, wavering robot-voiced countdown: fiihihive, foohorhor, threeheehee, two ooh ooh, wahnnan… BOOM! (She seemed entirely indifferent to the irony). Jim and I commented loudly on the disturbing nature of the clip within her earshot. He even half-jokingly asked if she could change it to the NCAA championships instead. She wasn’t amused. The film played in a loop for the whole four-day event, amplifying our anxieties.

A knot would come and go in the center of my upper back depending on the progress or setbacks crews were having at Fukushima Daiichi. The technologies we created to serve us had gotten much too unwieldy for our moral evolution, it seemed. Watching bold crews scramble to address the smoking reactors with buckets of water showed starkly how much humility we as a species lacked. The monster turning on us with a brush of its tail.

On NPR, Christopher Joyce reiterated the oft-cited national characteristic of gaman (我慢) —“to endure, accept the pain, don't complain," and shikata ganai (仕方がない) or "it can't be helped." The later seemed most useful. After the conference, I would watch Kore Eda’s quiet film Still Walking, an Ozu-esque examination of bittersweet family dynamics and unfulfilled yearnings. Kore Eda shoots at the luminous sky, the bright clear clouds. The family house is in a hilly neighborhood overlooking the ocean where a red train passes by in a regular, peaceful hush.

The train holds a regular schedule despite all the dramas that play out in the household. The mother character tends the grave of a son who commited suicide, says matter-of-factly how impossible it is to lose a child, but regularly huffs and puffs up and down the hill to the graveyard anyway. A younger woman politely endures this new mother-in-law’s cutting comments, a quick flicker of hurt showing on her face before regaining composure. These seams of pain are so unbearably accute, yet they are somehow borne.

Photos from a Fukushima Ghost Town

My two favorite photos from a recent Washington Post gallery of images taken inside the Fukushima no-entry zone. Both were taken of the town of Namie, on the coast of Fukushima Prefecture, by Kenji Chiga:

Cars deposited in a field by the tsunami. They almost appear to be grazing.

78,000 people used to live in Namie. Now it's a ghost town. Chilling. This video goes behind the scenes of the series.

A Short Pictorial History of the Human Chain

This Sunday, I'll be heading back to the White House for the next big demonstration with Tar Sands Action calling on Obama to deny the Keystone XL pipeline permit - you know, just in case he didn't get the message the first time around. They're planning to put a human chain around the White House this time (Update: check out photos from the event here and my reflections afterward here). Seems like a good opportunity to visit some notable human chains of recent memory:

One of the largest human chains ever recorded, the "Baltic Way" called for the end of Soviet rule in the Baltic states in August 1989. The chain was over three countries, 600 kilometers and two million people long and foreshadowed the region's eventual independence two years later. Recent echos of this have been felt in the country of Georgia where residents formed a chain of about a million people to protest Russia's attempt to split the country in two.

The Dongria Kondh tribe of Orissa, India were joined by thousands of supporters in 2009 to protest the destruction of their sacred mountain, Niyamgiri, by British mining company Vendata. A documentary on the tribe's continued activism against the bauxite mine has just been released. If you're a fan of human chains, India's definitely your place: school students and others routinely join hands about everything from air pollution and polythene bags to water conservation and industrial pollution in rivers. And that's just the environmental stuff.

Residents of Okinawa have held multiple protests against Futenma, a US Marine base on the Japanese island. Human chains comprised of tens of thousands have been held in 1995, 1998, 2003, 2005 and 2010. That later one brought 17,000 people out. One of many complaints residents have against the base is the pollution caused by air traffic. Protesters made another human chain around a US military base in Guam in 2010 when the Marines suggested turning a historically and biologically significant site - Pagat - into a firing range and training area.

About 5000 people showed up at Nairobi National Park in Kenya in June 2010 to advocate for the park's protection from human impacts like water pollution, trash, land grabbing and encroaching settlements. The organization, called Nairobi Greenline, is also planning to plant nearly a million native trees around the park.

After the Fukushima crisis in March 2011, 40,000 Germans turned out in force to protest nuclear energy, creating a chain nearly 50 kilometers long (seen here at a nuclear power plant in Neckarswestheim). The message must have struck a chord because the German government decided to phase out nuclear power months later (for an interesting contrast, check out this human chain in support of nuclear energy in Iran in 2006 - state approved, of course). Similar protests have been held in France, where nuclear power makes up the bulk of the country's energy supply.

Nearly 1000 people - including many adorable children - participated in a 2 kilometer-long human chain ("No hay dignidad sin Justicia" - There is no Dignity without Justice) in San Salvador this July to call attention to the poverty and poor housing conditions faced by many in the city. Here's a video.

Here's another list that focuses less on environmental issues.

Reflections on Talk by Annie Kammerer, NRC

Saga Prefecture governor Yasushi Furukawa looks way stressed. The Genkai nuclear plant is in his prefecture and its reactors were shut down for maintenance before the Fukushima disaster. NKH reports that he’s gotten mixed messaged from the national government on whether it’s safe to restart the plant and emotional letters from residents who have either safety or economic concerns (82% of Japanese want to get rid of nuclear power eventually). He doesn’t trust the regulatory body that says the plant’s safe because they gave a clean bill of health to Fukushima before the disaster too. He’s got grave responsibilities to the people in his community, but can’t trust what the higher-ups are telling him. What to do?

At a DC EcoWomen event that I attended last night, Senior Seismologist at the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), Annie Kammerer pointed out that Japan, like most countries in the world, manages risk to nuclear facilities using a “scenario model”. This model, she says, is much less comprehensive than the “probabilistic seismic hazard assessment” or PSHA model that the US uses. Japan is in the midst of adopting the American model while the NRC has released, on its part, a report on lessons learned from Fukushima (NRC itself has faced scrutiny of late).

Kammerer, a California native who was intrigued by earthquakes growing up, spoke in depth about the ways that the US determines hazard and reduces risk to nuclear facilities. It involved a lot of statistical stuff that I couldn’t quite follow and therefore was a pinch skeptical of. Numbers, after all, can’t encompass every potential scenario.

Still, the US has 104 operating nuclear reactors (not to mention nuclear waste facilities) and one’s got to come up with some sort of hazard model, as deficient as it might be. Kammerer and her colleagues unearth as many potential human screw-ups, as much available data on seismic history, the worst domino-effect scenarios and scientific data as possible and provide guidelines for constructing the best facilities under these circumstances. The goal is to push their findings into law, into the regulations. That can be a long process – 10 years in most cases (check out this infographic on risks to US nuclear facilities).

Although Kammerer says “I’m not pro or con nuclear power” and that “politics and science should be kept separate,” she “would eventually like to see nuclear phased out in the US.”

The DC EcoWomen are a fantastic group of people and had heaps of intelligent, revealing questions for Kammerer. Among them: Is fracking a concern? (yes, and NRC is looking into the implications); Obama’s canning Yucca Mnt. – what does the NRC think? (the decision had more to do with politics than science). I was eager to ask more questions – particularly her thoughts on China’s nuclear industry, the recent findings on tritium leaks at a large portion of US plants, and Diablo Canyon – but time was limited. I think I’ll leave the final word to Rankin Taxi:

Protesting Nuclear in Japan

Energy Shift Parade in Shibuya by SandoCap
It's heartening to see large anti-nuclear protests breaking out in Japan after the Fukushima disaster. It's as if people are drawing a line in the sand between what those in power tell us is a reasonable risk and the very fundamental things that allow us to live on this planet. This from The New York Times:
“I’m here for my children,” said Aki Ishii, who had her 3-year-old daughter in tow. “We just want our old life back, where the water is safe and the air is clean.” Her daughter wore a sign that said “Please let me play outside again.”       
Hiromasa Fujimoto, a rice and vegetable farmer, said it was his first protest, too. “I want to tell people that I’m just so worried about the soil, about the water,” he said. “I now farm with a Geiger counter in one hand, my tools in the other.”       
“It’s insane,” he added.
Meanwhile, NOVA's recent program Power Surge explains that China plans to build 400 nuclear reactors over the next 30 years. Yes, you heard correctly: 400 reactors.  One can only hope that the plants will have more structural integrity than all those schools in Sichuan that collapsed during the 2008 earthquake there. NOVA's producers aren't worried though. They're all "rah rah rah" about nuclear:

Watch the full episode. See more NOVA.