A Developing Situation

This is just a quick post about what it’s been like for me being here over the past couple of days. Being use to a ‘normal’ life, the spectre of so much potential danger hanging over me is leading to a surreal quality to everything. I have to stress the word potential, as of course, everything could turn out to be alright and of course, I hope that’s the case.

Yesterday, I met Yuko in Otakanomori for shopping and lunch. The trains were running fine, though there were less people around than you would expect. It was strange to see the whole shopping center closed, presumably to save electricity, with all it’s lights and heating needs requiring just too much. Some other shops and restaurants were open though and we had a nice lunch there. I felt strange eating out when there are so many disasters going on in Japan, but what are you going to do? They are still running a restaurant, depending on customers to do so and they need our support to keep going.

We were planning to get a new small, portable computer for our trip, so as to travel lighter and have something that has a longer battery life than most laptops. So it being a mere 25 minutes away by the Tsukuba Express to get there and, not really knowing hen we would be in such a good position to do so, we decided to head on down there. The atmosphere there was just like any Sunday. There may have been a few less people, but it was active and bustling, many shops open and girls dressed in maid costumes enticing in customers. Going there with Yuko was a very different experience, as the staff really wanted to explain to her the pros and cons of each computer. We went around, trying different models, generally wanting the lightness and battery life of a netbook, but not it’s limitations. In the end, we went for a lovely Toshiba CULV (consumer ultra-low voltage, power-efficient) 11.6-inch dual-core ultra-portable, that seemed to be the best compromise, whilst still ensuring the use of full Windows 7 functions, with it’s HD screen.

Whilst the atmosphere was fun and dynamic as ever. there were a few more strange-feeling anomalies. Yodobashi Camera had all it’s usually vivid neon lights turned off. In fact. the only way to see it was open was the window-lights and a scrolling message around it saying something along the lines of  “don’t worry, we’re open, we have just turned off our neon to save electricity”. We got onto the wonderful, comfortable Tskuba Express and headed home, happy we had taken the chance to go down there.

Back in the suburbs, the sense of impending doom returned. turning on the TV, there was more news about the stricken reactors in Fukushima, with reassurances that the emitted radiation was low-level, but no possible guarantee that it would always stay that way. Aftershocks rocked the apartment and news came in that there is a 70% possibility of a level 7  aftershock in the next 3 days, after which it would drop to 50% and keep receding. I added elements to my ’emergency bag’, kept by the door at all times, with some more warm clothes and another charged iPhone battery.

Today, we were able to use the car to get some more supplies. The local train line (Tobu-Noda) was stopped, again to save power, not just on the train but on the massive usage offices have. Luckily, my neighbourhood has an almost fully-stocked Belx, where I could get fruit, vegetables, bottled drinks and others. Yet there was no more bread or mineral water, or milk. The place was due to close at 2:00, before a projected 2-hour power-cut. Nearby was a Matsumoto Kyoshi. For some reason they had canned goods still, but no tissues, the entire row was wiped clean, though as I already have plenty, I just got some wet-wipes. We got some other practical necessities from the 100 yen shop- a small bucket, for using bath water to flush number-2’s during a power-cut in the event the water stopped flowing as it was dependant on pumps (which makes for excellent water-pressure, providing the electricity is around). One disturbing thing was the fact that all the petrol stations we passed were closed and they had run out of Toyu heating gas. Neither were ‘gas bombe’, canisters of gas for small stoves available. Apparently they had been the first thing to sell out and the shop owners had no idea when they’d get them again. If gas and electricity became cut off, as has happened in other areas, options for heating food would become very limited.

Coming home, we made some arrangements. We filled the bath with water in case it was needed during an outage. We also made some tea, kept in a thermos, with another larger thermos holding hot water. I made sure I had a bunch of torches ready and my laptops and phones were topped up. You see, with the outage, you might not know for sure if it would come on again when you were expecting it and these devices are essential, not just for amusement but for communication (though without internet or phone lines, I would be in the dark for a bit). I unlocked a convenient door, in the case that it would be needed in a sudden quake- not something I would expect, but under the circumstances be prepared for. Then came my favourite touch, a ring of motion-sensing LED lights  spread around the apartment. put into always-on mode, so I wouldn’t have the spookiness or possibility of accident of total darkness (something that nearby street lighting meant I never usually had).

We watched the TV, seeing ever-changing projected times for the power-cut, which in the end was deemed unnecessary in our area due to power savings from not using some train lines and less people  going to work. It was an anti-climax I was very pleased to hear of, not only for me, but for places like small hospitals or mothers with small kids to feed, who might not be fully prepared, or even aware of what to expect. Having power let me do Skyping, Facebook and so on and exposed me to more news.

It seems that foreign companies aren’t satisfied with the official reassurances of the Japanese government regarding their reactor’s radiation leakages, not only the current venting of steam, but the potential of much worse radioactive fallout being emitted, that could travel very quickly by wind to the Tokyo area. It seems that the sheer power of nature defied the well-researched designs of the plants, faced with  one of the largest Earthquakes on record, as well as colossal Tsunami. Cooling down afterwards seems to be a real problem, with having the energy onhand to keep pumping seawater over them, with the failure of their own coolers taking place repeatedly, seems to be  a real challenge. Although I accept the official statements that what has been emitted so far is not too dangerous, at least from a large distance, that isn’t to say that a serious meltdown could be relied upon not to release a ‘toxic plume’, that might head inland rather than out to sea. Reading on the internet, the opinion of experts seems to be a bit divided, although they seem pretty unanimous that since the reactors have automatically shut down, their level of heat and radioactivity is nothing like that emitted by Chernobyl.

New news that two rods became exposed in the second reactor is not exactly reassuring. I really take my hat off to all the brave TEPCO workers who are in many cases making the ultimate sacrifice by doing whatever they can do.  But, like everyone else, my fear is- what if it’s not enough? The usual fail-safes seem to have failed and the innovative alternatives, such as the sea-water with boric acid, is an untested alternative to the usual, powered cooling, plus the power to do so is apparently lacking, with insufficient pumps for all the reactors and one of them actually containing MOX fuel, which mixes the more deadly plutonium with the uranium.

So I hope everything will be okay. We are in an unprecedented situation and everyone involved in sear and rescue or trying to tame the reactors is doing an amazing job. Yet the sheer risk remains and some governments are advising their nationals not just to not travel to this region, but not even to stay here. Companies are moving their staff further south where possible. A telling development was the fact that a US aircraft carrier moved itself further from the coast when it detected too-high levels of radiation from a plume emitted from one of the various hydrogen explosions. Friends are talking of going to other areas of Jndsapan for a while, something I’d contemplate, except for the fact that I have a plane to catch a few days from now and want to remain in decent reach from the airport. Plus I am comfortable and ready to be where I am. I don’t honestly know how high the risk of fallout is, but I understand that rain would be most dangerous and just limiting how often I am outside over the next few days  would help.

I just hope the next few days and beyond re navigated safely, by me and the wonderful people around me, by Japan and even by the world, as presumably a radioactive plume could go wherever the wind would blow it. Not only that, but any serious interruption to Tokyo’s functioning would have difficult effects on Japan as a whole, as it’s by far the economic heart of these islands, financing the rescue operations going on elsewhere. It’s hard to believe how overwhelmed Japan is by all these current and potential calamities. Yet it’s amazing to see how well they are being born, not just stoically, but calmly and generally in good humour. Everything you see destroyed today will be just as quickly rebuilt tomorrow, without even a hint of complaint. I just hope the safety features of reactors and sea defences (such as access to high ground) are improved, and if this means listening to the critical comments of whistle-blowing workers, so be it. Safety is just as important as prosperity- in fact the two intimately depend on one another.

Please all stay safe!

Gideon

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