Friday, April 22, 2011

Today's Forecast

Yokohama, Japan - Before I leave the house in the morning I check the weather report, just to see if I'll need an umbrella at some point in the day. Of course nowadays I also always check the radiation report, a new addition to my newspaper (The Tokyo Shinbun) that has appeared in the wake of the continually evolving disaster at the TEPCO nuclear power station in Fukushima. It looks like all is clear for today in my neighborhood of Teraya (an idyllic name, meaning Temple Valley) in Yokohama, no need for an umbrella or protective radiation garments. 

The measurements in the newspaper are appropriately given in microsieverts. To tell the truth, I have absolutely no idea what a microsievert is so I just go to the website for a "visualization of radiation levels in the Kanto area" of Japan. Using data provided by Japan's Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, the site compares hourly readings of radioactivity in various prefectures of Japan. The web page also includes different information to use as a familiar point of reference like natural background radiation and more. Based on the assumptions of Dr. M. Yamauchi of the Swedish Institute of Space Physics, it’s all very scientific but easy enough for anyone to understand. The site features twelve monitors displaying depictions of radioactive particles falling like snow against a black background. Right now Fukushima Prefecture, where the leaking nuclear reactor is located, looks like it's experiencing a mild flurry. In my prefecture of Kanagawa the “precipitation” is hardly noticeable.

Looking at these reports, the outlook seems bright and sunny. They stand in stark contrast to the scary image of radioactive clouds drifting over the horizon that has filled my mind recently. That is until I start thinking about cumulative exposure over the last month and more. Calculating that would take more fingers and toes than I ever hope to grow. Most denizens of Temple Valley I talk with seem to trust government and nuclear industry sources who continue to stress that the levels of exposure are safe but some have their doubts. An area resident I spoke with today told me that she heard the radiation levels in Tokyo's downtown section of Shinjuku is at times higher than it is in areas bordering Fukushima prefecture over 150 miles to the north. She says the dispersion depends on terrain and how the air streams across the landscape. According to her the buildings which form the man-made canyons of Tokyo can act like a funnel for the radioactive wind. I’m learning something new here every day. Just last week the government announced that they were
planning to raise the threshold limit of radiation exposure for children in Fukushima Prefecture. What was dangerous a week ago is now apparently safe.

While the forecast for the future is hazy at best, there is one thing that's clear. The folks here in Temple Valley have learned more about nuclear power in the last month than they've ever wanted to know in their whole lives. Perhaps they have a lesson to teach us all.

When accused of being ill-prepared, representatives from TEPCO, the company that owns the leaking nuclear power station in Fukushima, have maintained that the scale of the earthquake and tsunami that hit the plant was beyond anyone’s reasonable expectations. I never expected to be living in a world seemingly ripped from the pages of a science fiction novel, a world where a Geiger counter is almost as commonplace as a thermometer. Maybe when we are dealing with a form of energy as volatile and unpredictable as nuclear power, we should expect the unexpected. 

Related story: Postponing the Inevitable

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