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Post-earthquake Japan – An update from Yoko

Collapsed bookshelves in my room on March 11, 2011Structural damage caused by the earthquake on March 11, 2011 in Koriyama.

It has already been over two months since the mega earthquake and tsunami hit Japan.  The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant problem is ongoing.  The current plan/estimate is to stabilize the plant in six to nine months, and that is the best-case scenario.  Meanwhile, in my city, Koriyama (population 336,232), hourly radiation fallouts have been decreasing and are averaging around 1.35 micro sieverts per hour lately.  The city is monitoring the radiation levels in food, and water, as well as in outdoor spaces such as parks.  As a precaution, nursery schools, kindergarten, and schools at the K-12 level have implemented restrictions in the use of schoolyards.  There have been efforts to reduce the effect of radiation fallout at schools in my city by covering the contaminated topsoil with soil extracted from a lower stratigraphic level.  The mayor initially experimented with removing the topsoil completely, but there have been problems in finding a location to dump the soil.  In either case, there has been a reduction in the level of radiation detected on the ground after the treatment.  Radiation and earthquakes have been an everyday topic of conversation for people here in Fukushima.  Since the earthquake on March 11, we have not yet had one aftershock-free day in my city, but, thankfully, the ones we are getting lately have been pretty small.

Structural damage caused by the earthquake on March 11, 2011 in Koriyama.

It has been interesting to observe a great variety of opinions regarding the situation in Fukushima and radiation risks on the internet, especially on Twitter.  As a Fukushima resident, it is surreal to read people’s tweets and blogs that claim Fukushima–the entire Fukushima prefecture–is uninhabitable.  Many people and some environmental organizations, like Friends of the Earth Japan suggest that government’s provisional standard for the safe level of radiation exposure for school children (under this emergency circumstance) is set unacceptably high (The Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology has recently announced that it will reduce the acceptable annual radiation exposure for Fukushima children from provisional 20 mili sieverts to 1 mili sieverts.  It is not clear right now what more will or can be done to meet the new goal).  Meanwhile, life is going on as usual here in Koriyama.  The current event has made me think a lot about scientific and social understandings of risks, and the classic environmental topic of costs and benefits. 

Ricefield in Koriyama in March 2011

The main attraction of Fukushima prefecture is the beautiful landscape and great food (and many hot springs as elsewhere in Japan).  It is a sad truth that it will be a long while before people think of food from Fukushima only in terms of how delicious and fresh it is.  Right now, it is more about monitoring to ensure the safety of the produce grown here.  Tourism in Fukushima is suffering.  Actually, Japan’s tourism industry as a whole seems to be suffering, as many foreigners avoid Japan altogether.  Japan is open for business, as well as most parts of Fukushima.   

1000+ year-old Cherry tree in Miharu, Fukushima in April 2011

As for the physical damage caused by the March 11th earthquake, in the city of Koriyama, there were more damage than I initially thought.  One person died in a partially collapsed building, and about 1,190 houses/buildings have been deemed damaged beyond repair (according to the summary of the damage of the earthquake listed in the Asahi Shimbun on May 29, 2011, p. 28).  The entire northeast region of Japan faces a long road to recovery.  This is also the chance to build new, well planned out cities.  For Fukushima, the challenge is complicated by actual radiation fallout as well as the prefecture’s name association with the infamous nuclear power plant disaster.  Fukushima prefecture is the entrance to the rest of the Northeast (Tohoku) Japan.  The major arteries of Japan such as the railroad for Shinkansen (the bullet train) and Tohoku highway run through Koriyama-City and Fukushima-City (the capital, population 291,732).  Fukushima’s recovery is crucial for the well-being of  Northeast Japan, as well as for Japan as a whole. 

View of Inawashiro, Fukushima in May 2011

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