Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Japan, a land where it’s pollen versus radiation

reprinted from Crikey

A lot of the foreign reporters and observers who rushed into Japan after the triple whammy hit on March 11 mistook the Japanese custom of wearing face masks as preparation for the potential radioactive fallout. Many viewers around the world watching the coverage from Japan might have made the same assumption. Admittedly, some were indeed wearing those masks because they were afraid of airborne radiation dust coming in from Fukushima, but most were more likely trying to fend off different kinds of offensive substances getting into their system.

This is spring — the hay fever season with huge amounts of cedar pollen wafting on the air. Hillsides and mountain foothills glow orange all around the country at this time of the year, and the nightly weather forecast on TV always includes a pollen warning for the next day. Since Fukushima, that segment also includes an alert of the level of atmospheric radiation (with details of wind direction and strength).

Hay fever was never quite such the problem it is now. But then again, neither was iodine, caesium and other radioactive substances but in a curious manner, these two problems are related.

For most foreigners Japan has a very urban image, but in fact it is one of the world’s most heavily forested countries — a contender as poster pin-up for the UN designated International Year of the Forests, 2011. According to a UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation’s Global Forest Assessment Report (2005), 25 million hectares or close to 70% of Japan’s land is forest. Only Finland has more trees. The world average is only around 30% and Australia is way down the list with only 21.3% (NZ is 31% ). Japan’s forest may be the critical factor in two current health problems. To understand why, we need to look at the trees, not the forest.

Japan’s hillsides and mountains used to be quite different from the way they are now. Old-growth forests have long gone, leaving only a few pockets with most of the rest managed forests. Until as late as the 1960s, most of them would be dominated by broad-leaf trees such as beech, oak, elm, birch, horse chestnut, and many others. These forests used to provide people with food, as well as timber and for tools, baskets, roofing materials, fabric and most important charcoal for fuel. Trees were coppiced so that they grew back and grew another harvest within 10-15 years.

Typically, rural farming communities were self-sustaining. They grew rice, vegetables and other cereals in the fields, and during summer people collected fruits and nuts in the forest and in winter made charcoal, from the forest trees, making them an indispensable resource for the rural economy.

Charcoal was used mostly in the city for cooking. Its consumption reached its postwar peak in 1957 — 2.2 million tonnes — but soon went out of favour when imported oil products became readily available, a change that devastated rural economies. Only a fraction over 1% of that 1957 figure for charcoal is used today and the demand for those other forest products has been replaced by cheap mass-produced plastic tools (also derived from oil).

That switch from charcoal to oil signalled urban economic growth, and rural life lost its wealth and the capacity to sustain itself. The loss of income in the rural areas drove many farmers to the city for work. The urban centres needed cheap labour and out of work farmers migrated from the countryside, either in winter or permanently. The catalyst for Japan’s “economic miracle” of the 1960s, imported cheap oil, may have created the army of workers the economy needed, but it destroyed the old charcoal-based energy system and set in motion decades of environmental degradation.

Old forests were either abandoned or cleared for other income options — mostly plantations. More than 10 million hectares of Japan’s forests are now plantation — fast-growing evergreens such as cedar, cypress and pine planted during the late 1950s and ’60s in straight rows. Their wood is good for house building, but not charcoal. They only yield an income when they mature.

Which is where the pollen blows in, because right now a generation of these trees has reached stage where they are producing huge loads of pollen, but sadly, not much saleable timber, because their value has been diminished by cheap imports. In fact these plantations haven’t been maintained properly either because there are fewer forestry workers employed to look after them — nearly half a million in 1960 down to 5000, and they are getting old. A quarter of Japan’s forestry workers are over 65.

Nearly all the young and able workers have gone to the cities. At its peak during the miracle decade, half of the seasonal migrant workforce was made up of people from the Tohoku region, the area hardest hit by the recent earthquake, tsunami and Fukushima radiation hazard. In those days youngsters graduating from junior high school were so prized by employers they were known as the “golden eggs”.

As young people left, rural areas decayed and the forests were left to their own devices. Now the gap between city and rural life in Japan has grown so wide country people have long felt they were completely left way behind. How to catch up and be part of the economic miracle? Companies were reluctant to invest in industrial plants, but the power utilities were looking for locations from whence they could supply power to urban industries — by nuclear power.

When a rural area agreed to a nuclear power plant it would be rewarded not only with jobs (although many would would be only as subcontractors) but all kinds of flow on benefits to encourage locals and to bring in more industry — government subsidised flow on benefits such as roads, railways, ports and of course electricity. Locals suspicious of the health hazards were assured the plants were foolproof (there are people still claiming that Fukushima is an example of the safety rather than the hazard of nuclear power plants). To the eyes and ears of the rural (and coastal) poor, shiny new infrastructure installations were symbols of affluence too tempting to refuse.

Such was the scope of the government’s largesse that many of Japan’s “nuclear towns” have a totally disproportionate range and volume of public buildings, sporting venues and other “municipal” facilities.

Now, after what some are already calling 3/11, nuclear power has lost whatever gloss it had. Even the opposition leader of the Liberal Democratic Party, which propagated that nuclear energy policy for four decades, has called for its review. So things must be serious. In the short term, natural gas and oil may fill the nuclear void, but with the era of cheap oil nearing its end, as admitted in International Energy Agency’s World Energy Outlook last year, maybe Japan should start seriously looking at its forest as a potential energy source.

Who knows, we may even get a return to the old diversity of the mixed forests instead of mono-cultural plantations. And fewer people needing to wear those face masks.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Nukes and Quakes

Here's the piece I wrote with late Tony Barrell for the Australian edition of the Rolling Stone in June 1996. After Fukushima, nearly 15 years later, it was discovered and the Energy Bulletin republished it describing it as "presceient". Below some points we mentioned in the piece. The whole article is available from here (PDF).

Monday, March 21, 2011











Thursday, March 17, 2011

Japan earthquake: no spring in our step, but it’s in the air

reprinted from

Springtime is meant be full of life and merriment in Japan. It’s the time of renewal. The paddies in the countryside are ready to be planted with a new rice crop. The end of the school year means kids should be enjoying their break. High school leavers are sitting university entrance exams and graduates are getting ready for their first day at work.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Nuclear power: when the answer becomes the problem

with Tony Barrell.
(reprinted from ABC's Drum, also from the Energy Bulletin)

The Japanese are very earthquake-conscious. Maybe more so than others in vulnerable areas.
The anniversary of the great Kanto earthquake which destroyed much of Tokyo in 1923 on September 1 is an occasion for public campaigns and safety drills throughout the country. The Japanese have always been aware that they live on shaky ground and that there is always a chance that somewhere in the country will suffer a really big one. This includes those regions of the country which have more than their fair share of nuclear power plants, such as the huge cluster at Kashiwazaki (which includes the biggest nuclear reactor in the world) on the Japan Sea coast in Niigata, the home region of the disgraced corrupt politician Kakuei Tanaka.

He was the great promoter of nuclear power in the 1970s, especially as a way of providing electricity for the shinkansen (bullet train) line which he made sure had plenty of stops in his home electorate.

Japan certainly has stricter building regulations than many countries but unfortunately that doesn¹t mean they are strictly enforced. Some years back many buildings constructed according to these rules were found to be substandard because avaricious construction companies had cut corners.

Nevertheless, there has been widespread complacency that things are OK. For example, last month several Japanese said to Rick that what happened in Christchurch "would not happen in Japan".

They may have been ready and well-drilled for a huge quake but people were not prepared for the tsunami that followed this one. The buildings that withstood the initial jolt were quickly washed away by the massive force of water on which whole houses, cars and freight containers bobbed about like bath toys. People who survived the quake were soon claimed by the 10-metre-plus wave. Hubris may apply to those who run nuclear power plants. They (and their supporters in the media) claim that because they are better designed and more rigorously constructed none of the 55 working reactors could suffer an accident like Three Mile Island or Chernobyl. It's a phrase we have heard many times in the past week or so that, even if it's true, seems like an echo of an over-confidence which has now become intrinsic to their business.

There's no doubt there was a decline in reactor-building over the past two decades, but in recent years there has been a lot of talk of a nuclear power 'renaissance'. Only days prior to the quake, Chugoku Electric (the utility that serves southern Honshu) began work on a new plant on Kamiseki island in the Inland Sea. It will be interesting to see what happens further south in Kyushu, in Miyazaki prefecture, where a people's referendum is due on April 10 to decide the fate of a proposed reactor in the town of Kushima.

To compensate for the slowdown in building new plants at home, nuclear power is being spread by Japanese interests outside the country. Not long ago, a consortium of utilities and reactor constructors set up International Nuclear Energy Development of Japan (JINED, which includes Tokyo's power utility TEPCO and Toshiba (the company that built the damaged Fukushima reactors) to encourage the export of reactors. JINED has already won a contract for Vietnam¹s second power reactor, and, until the Fukushima disaster, hopes were high for a deal with Turkey (another quake-prone country).

We have frequently been reassured that all Japan's reactors have been built to withstand 'known' quakes (up to 7.9) but the severity of the tsunami that hit the east coast on March 11 was not in the plan; certainly no-one thought it would mean a disruption of national power and communication grids or the introduction of rolling blackouts affecting industry and households alike.

Confusion was such that TEPCO had to phase it in slowly. Train services were reduced to skeleton timetables, escalators and lifts stopped working and shelves in shops were emptied. Thanks in part to the widespread use of the oh-so-efficient Just-In-Time delivery system, supermarkets carry only a minimum of stock so shoppers responded with their own Just-In-Case policy and ready-to-eat meals were soon sold out.

For years, Japan's nine regional power utilities have been promoting the increased consumption of electricity (as the 'all electric' way) with the humble but absurd toilet seat warmer, huge fridges, electric cooking tops, floor heaters and air conditioners, the typical middle-class home has become a power guzzler. Many public spaces throughout the country are so well lit there is hardly any night. Vending machines spew out refrigerated or heated drinks around the clock. Since nuclear reactors can't be turned down or off when demand slows, it seems people have been urged to consume the (perhaps surplus) electricity they make regardless of whether it's needed.

Most trains are now electrified. The new shinkansen line, which opened on the very next day of the quake, links Kagoshima at very bottom of the southern island of Kyushu, with Aomori, at the northern tip of Honshu. The plan is to extend the network even further north to Hokkaido. And to that end the underwater tunnel between the islands has already been built. To top all this, Maglev, the next generation of very very very fast trains, which run on magnetic levitation, is coming closer.

If Japan somehow manages to avoid dangerous fallout from the Fukushima accidents, it will soon have to find other sources of power if the 'electrifying' lifestyle is to continue its expansion. Building more nuclear power plants, however, suddenly seems an unlikely way to service the demand that¹s been established. Even if their operators could persuade a remote town or village to accept a nuclear power station it will take at least a decade to get it up and running. And that's on top of what has been estimated to be a repair bill of between $100 billion and $170 billion for the damage done by the tsunami.

So, what will be used to generate electricity in the short and medium-term?

Will it be coal or oil, and where will it come from? Already China consumes half the world's coal and even without taking into account the cost of global warming, coal and gas will not be cheap. Then there's the problem of instability in the Middle East (Japan relies on the region for most of its oil and gas) and the International Energy Authority has announced that the peak of oil production was reached in 2006 and it will continue to be more difficult and costlier to extract. Nuclear power has long been touted as the answer to the problem of peak oil and some climate change experts have touted nuclear as the answer to pollution and warming. Now that something not that unlike 'another Chernobyl' has occurred in the country where such a disaster was not meant to happen these people may need to think again.