Monday, May 30, 2011

In Japan, the same old problems

TOKYO — Mega-disasters like Japan’s earthquake-tsunami are deadly and dramatic, but economists who study them are in near-total agreement: They don't cause much long-term economic damage, particularly in developed countries.

But in Japan, that rosy outlook comes with a caveat. A full recovery would leave Japan merely with the same gloomy economy it had in the first place, well before the northern coastline was flattened on March 11.

Macroeconomists who have studied big disasters around the world over the past decade have found that major economies are generally strong enough to perform a repair job. And in this case, the disaster spread across hundreds of miles, but it didn’t strike an economic center; the battered Tohoku region accounted for just 2.5 percent of Japan’s economic output.

But the world’s third-largest economy must now perform two repair jobs at once, reconstructing a coastline while also grappling with a shriveling population, a growing social-welfare burden and a massive sovereign debt. This latest disaster elongated the list of problems for an economy that already had too many.

“The economy’s long-term trend, fundamentally, doesn’t change,” said Kazumasa Oguro, a macroeconomist at Tokyo’s Hitotsubashi University.

But then Oguro added, “the basic trend before this was deterioration.”

Researchers who study disasters describe a two-step economic impact, with a short-term blow that is followed by a quick, neutralizing wave of private investment, new jobs and government spending.

That’s the pattern Japan saw when a 6.9-magnitude earthquake struck Kobe in January 1995. The industrial port city lost 6,400 people. Some 100,000 buildings collapsed. The country’s economy grew 1.9 percent that year, and in less than 1 1 / 2 years, Kobe’s industrial production had nearly returned to normal.

In the two months since the March double-disaster and nuclear emergency, Japan has endured only the first economic aftereffect, crystallized last week when the government announced that, between January and March, its economy contracted at a 3.7 percent annualized rate. That second consecutive quarter of shrinkage tipped Japan into a recession.

The news doubled as a shorthand for all that had happened since the earthquake. Some 200,000 jobs were lost as a result of evacuation and building destruction, according to one research firm. Toyota suspended all domestic production until April 17 and is now operating at just 50 percent of usual levels. Concerned about Japan’s disaster-vulnerable supply chain, some companies, such as Nippon Steel, drew up plans to expand operations overseas.

The country also faces long-term energy shortages resulting from the damaged Fukushima Daiichi plant and other shuttered nuclear plants. Forced blackouts appear unlikely, but businesses are being asked to conserve energy. To avoid peak electricity times, some automakers plan this summer to close their factories on Thursdays and Fridays — and keep them open on Saturdays and Sundays.

As reconstruction money flows into the disaster region, though, economists expect Japan to experience a period of growth, beginning in the third quarter. Japan’s economy minister, Kaoru Yosano, called the recession a “temporary phenomenon” and predicted that the economy will still expand 1 percent this year.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Japan to build 100,000 homes for tsunami survivors

Japan's government proposed a special $50 billion (4 trillion yen) budget to help finance reconstruction efforts and plans to build 100,000 temporary homes for survivors of last month's devastating earthquake and tsunami.

The twin disasters destroyed roads, ports, farms and homes and crippled a nuclear power plant that forced tens of thousands of more people to evacuate their houses for at least several months. The government said the damage could cost $309 billion, making it the world's most expensive natural disaster.

Prime Minister Naoto Kan said he was moved by his conversations with victims during a recent tour of shelters.

"I felt with renewed determination that we must do our best to get them back as soon as possible," he told reporters.

The government approved an extra $50 billion (4 trillion yen) to help finance the rebuilding, in what is expected to be only the first installment of reconstruction funding. About $15 billion (1.2 trillion yen) will go to fixing roads and ports and more than $8.5 billion (700 billion yen) will go to build temporary homes and clearing rubble.

"This is the first step toward rebuilding Japan after the major disasters," Finance Minister Yoshihiko Noda said.

More than 27,000 people are dead or missing after the earthquake and tsunami hit northern Japan on March 11. About 135,000 survivors are living in 2,500 shelters set up in schools and community centers. Many others have moved into temporary housing or are staying with relatives.

As part of the government's recovery plan, it will build 30,000 temporary homes by the end of May and another 70,000 after that, Kan said.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Japan to launch massive search for quake bodies

Japan will send nearly 25,000 soldiers backed by boats and aircraft into its disaster zone Monday on an intensive land-and-sea mission to recover the bodies of those killed by last month's earthquake and tsunami, the military said.

Agriculture officials also plan to send a team of veterinarians into the evacuation zone around a stricken nuclear plant to check on hundreds of thousands of abandoned cows, pigs and chickens, many of which are believed to have died of starvation and neglect. The government is considering euthanizing some of the dying animals, officials said.

About 14,300 people have been confirmed dead so far in the catastrophic March 11 tsunami and earthquake. Another 12,000 remain missing and are presumed killed. Some of their bodies were likely swept out to sea, while others were buried under the mass of rubble.

Cleanup crews have discovered some remains as they gingerly removed rotting debris to clear the area for rebuilding.

But the two-day military search operation will be far more extensive, Defense Ministry spokesman Ippo Maeyama said Sunday.

"We will do our utmost to recover bodies for bereaved families," he said.

A total of 24,800 soldiers will scour the rubble, backed by 90 helicopters and planes, he said. Another 50 boats, along with 100 navy divers, will search the waters up to 20 kilometers off the coast, he said. Police, coast guard and U.S. troops will also take part.

"It's been very difficult and challenging to find bodies because the areas hit by tsunami are so widespread," he said. "Many bodies also have been swept away by the tsunami."

The operation will be the third intensive military search for bodies since the disaster last month. With the waters receding, Maeyama hopes the teams will have more success.

The search was complicated by the decomposition of some of the corpses, he said. Some had already turned into skeletons.

"You have to be very careful in touching the bodies because they quickly disintegrate. We cannot tell the bodies' gender anymore, let alone their age," he said.

The searches will continue, however, "as long as families want us to look for their loved ones," Maeyama said.

Meanwhile, the government in the Fukushima prefecture will send a team of six veterinarians into the 12-mile (20-kilometer) evacuation zone around the radiation-leaking Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant to survey the livestock there.

Farmers in the area were estimated to have left 3,000 cows, 130,000 pigs and 680,000 chickens behind when they hurriedly fled the area last month when the nuclear crisis started.

With no time for burials, veterinarians who find dead livestock will spray lime over them to prevent them from spreading disease, agricultural officials said.

The government is also considering euthanizing dying animals, but only after getting permission from their owners, said Yutaka Kashimura, an agricultural official in Fukushima.

"Killing animals is the very last resort," he said.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Japan earmarks first $50 billion for post-quake rebuild

Japan's cabinet approved on Friday almost $50 billion of spending for post-earthquake rebuilding, a downpayment on the country's biggest public works effort in six decades.

The emergency budget of 4 trillion yen ($48.5 billion), which is likely be followed by more reconstruction spending packages, is still dwarfed by the overall cost of damages caused by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, estimated at $300 billion.

"With this budget, we are taking one step forward toward reconstruction ... and toward restarting the economy," Finance Minister Yoshihiko Noda told reporters after a cabinet meeting.

Unpopular Prime Minister Naoto Kan, under fire for his handling of the crisis, said Japan would have to issue fresh government bonds to fund extra budgets to come, and suggested he would stay on to oversee the process.

"I feel it was my destiny to be prime minister when the disasters and nuclear accident took place," Kan told a news conference.

"I want to work for reconstruction and rebuilding, and present an outline to overcome these two crises. To have that vision in sight is my heartfelt desire as a politician."

Financing the next packages will be much tougher, as they are likely to involve a mix of taxes as well as borrowing in the bond market, which could strain Japan's debt-laden economy.

If Kan is unable to steer those laws through parliament, he may be forced to step down, analysts say.

The magnitude 9.0 earthquake and 15-meter (50-ft) tsunami that followed caused Japan's gravest crisis since World War Two, killing up to 28,000 people and destroying tens of thousands of homes.

It also smashed a nuclear power plant which began leaking radiation, a situation the plant's operator says could take all year to bring under control.

The budget will be submitted to parliament next week and is expected to be enacted in May.


Prime Minister Kan, who has been accused by opposition politicians, his own party and quake survivors of failing to take command of the response to the triple disaster, has said the need to rebuild is an opportunity for national "rebirth."

A Jiji news agency opinion poll showed Kan's support rate stood at 20.5 percent, up a scant 1.6 points from the previous month, with more than three out of four voters saying he had exercised little or no leadership over the nuclear crisis.

About 57 percent said they were supportive of a tax rise to finance reconstruction compared with 38.6 percent who were not.

In a Reuters poll of retail investors released on Friday, 83 percent of those surveyed said they disapproved or strongly disapproved of the administration's handling of the crisis.

As well as trying to rebuild the ruined northeast of the country, Japan also has to contend with the world's worst nuclear crisis since the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, the wrecking of the Fukushima Daiichi plant, 240 km (150 miles) from Tokyo.

Radiation spilled out from the facility after a hydrogen explosion, and in their battle to cool melting fuel rods, engineers pumped radioactive water into the Pacific, a move that worried Japan's neighbors about the spread of contamination.

Masataka Shimizu, the much-criticised president of plant operator Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO), visited an evacuation center for the first time since the disaster struck, kneeling and bowing deeply to the evacuees.

"I want to work hard so that you can go home," he said. Mostly subdued evacuees pleaded with him to bring the crisis to an end so they could go home. "I want you to act as if it had happened to your own family," said one man.

Earlier, dressed in blue work clothes, Shimizu apologized to Fukushima's regional governor, Yuhei Sato.

"I apologize from the bottom of my heart for the great trouble caused to many people in society," he said.

Shimizu's company has been accused of downplaying the dangers and ignoring warnings about the risk of a quake and tsunami striking the plant, as well as reacting poorly to the damage.

Japan said this week it would ban anyone entering a 20-km (12-mile) evacuation zone around the plant.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Japan Quake Caused Surprisingly Severe Soil Collapse

The scale of Japan's March 11 earthquake and tsunami wasn't the only thing that surprised geologists.

The 9.0 earthquake in Japan — the fourth most powerful quake ever recorded — also caused an unusually severe and widespread shift in soil through liquefaction, a new study suggests.

Near coastlines, harbors and rivers, earthquakes can make the wet, sandy soil jiggle, turning it temporarily from a solid to a liquid state, a process known as liquefaction. Heavy sand and rock sinks, while water and lighter sand bubble to the surface. The slurry spreads, often toward the water, and the surface shifts.

Japan's liquefaction occurred over hundreds of miles, surprising even experienced engineers who are accustomed to seeing disaster sites, including from the recent earthquakes in Chile and New Zealand.

Other areas vulnerable

The study raises questions about whether existing building codes in other vulnerable locations can enable structures to withstand massive liquefaction, including in areas of Oregon, Washington and California.

"We've seen localized examples of soil liquefaction as extreme as this before, but the distance and extent of damage in Japan were unusually severe," said Scott Ashford, a study team member from Oregon State University.

"Entire structures were tilted and sinking into the sediments, even while they remained intact," said Ashford, who is based in Corvallis, Ore. "The shifts in soil destroyed water, sewer and gas pipelines, crippling the utilities and infrastructure these communities need to function. We saw some places that sank as much as 4 feet," or 1.2 meters.

Long-lasting quake

The duration of the Japanese earthquake, about five minutes, could be the key to the severity of the liquefaction and may force researchers to reconsider the extent of liquefaction damage possible.

"With such a long-lasting earthquake, we saw how structures that might have been okay after 30 seconds just continued to sink and tilt as the shaking continued for several more minutes," Ashford said. "And it was clear that younger sediments, and especially areas built on recently filled ground, are much more vulnerable."

An event almost exactly like Japan's is expected in the Pacific Northwest from the Cascadia Subduction Zone, and the new findings make it clear that liquefaction will be a critical issue in the young soils there.

"Young" sediments, in geologic terms, are those deposited within the past 10,000 years or so. In Oregon, for instance, that describes much of downtown Portland, the Portland International Airport, nearby industrial facilities and other cities and parts of the Willamette Valley.

About 1,100 bridges in Oregon are at risk from an earthquake on the Cascadia Subduction Zone, according to the Oregon Department of Transportation. Fewer than 15 percent of them have been retrofitted to prevent collapse.

Some damage may be reduced or prevented by different construction techniques or retrofitting, Ashford said. But another reasonable goal is to at least anticipate the damage — to know what will probably be destroyed, make contingency plans for what will be needed to implement repairs, and design ways to help protect and care for residents until services can be restored, the researchers say.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Japan disaster death toll nears 14,000

Tokyo (CNN) -- The death toll from Japan's earthquake and tsunami rose to nearly 14,000 on Monday as efforts continued to stabilize a crippled nuclear reactor plant.

Another 14,030 people are missing, according to Japan's National Police Agency. Police and soldiers still are combing the ruins of coastal villages in search of more bodies.

The March 11 magnitude 9.0-earthquake and the tsunami it spawned have killed 13,843 and displaced more than 136,000 people, police said Monday.

The tsunami also caused an ongoing crisis at a nuclear power plant that workers continue to fight.

On Monday, safety officials said that remote-controlled robots and the workers controlling them have recorded high levels of radiation inside and around two reactor buildings at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in northern Japan. The tsunami damaged the plant's cooling systems, unnerving hundreds of thousands of people.

The U.S.-built robot probes measured radiation doses as high as 57 millisieverts inside the housing for reactor No. 3 and up to 49 millisieverts inside the No. 1 reactor building, Japan's Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency reported.

Levels found between the double doors of the airlocks of the reactor buildings were much higher -- 270 millisieverts in the case of reactor No. 1 and 170 millsieverts in No. 3, the agency said.

By comparison, the average resident of an industrialized country receives a dose of about 3 millisieverts per year. Emergency standards for plant workers battling the month-old nuclear disaster limit their annual exposure to 250 millisieverts, while a CT scan produces just under 7 and a chest X-ray delivers a one-time dose of about .05 millisieverts.

Doses above 100 millisieverts can increase the long-term risk of cancer, while 1,000 millisieverts can produce radiation sickness.

There was no immediate explanation for the much-higher radiation levels recorded in the airlocks, said Hidehiko Nishiyama, the safety agency's chief spokesman.

The robots were inserted Sunday in an attempt to determine the conditions inside the No. 1 and 3 reactor buildings, which were blown apart in massive hydrogen explosions in the first days of the worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl. The cooling systems for Fukushima Daiichi reactors 1-3 were knocked out by the tsunami that struck northern Japan, causing the reactor cores to overheat, spewing huge amounts of radioactive contamination across the surrounding area.

Nishiyama said running the "Packbots" in reactor No. 3 was difficult because of the amount of debris scattered around the building, but engineers found the building was dry and the temperatures were normal. In unit 1, the robot found a high level of humidity, the explanation for which was not known Monday night.

The robots were inserted the same day that the plant's owner, the Tokyo Electric Power Co., announced a six- to nine-month plan to restore normal cooling systems and shut down the damaged reactors at Fukushima Daiichi. Japan's government has designated the situation a top-scale nuclear disaster.

Nishiyama said he did not know whether the data recorded Sunday would affect the timetable laid out by Tokyo Electric, which had been under pressure to lay out a timetable to resolve the crisis.

No data has yet been reported from the No. 2 reactor, which is believed to be leaking an undetermined portion of the 6-7 cubic meters (1,600-1,800 gallons) of fresh water being pumped into it every day. The plan laid out Sunday would bring an end to that improvised solution, which has left workers scrambling to find places to contain the vast amounts of contaminated water that have flooded the basements of the units.

In Tokyo, meanwhile, Japan's government took a step toward slowing what critics have called a revolving door between the nuclear industry and the ministry that regulates it. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano said the government is urging officials of the Ministry of the Economy, Trade and Industry to stop taking jobs with companies that run nuclear plants upon retirement.

"I have consulted with METI and decided to request that government officials to voluntarily refrain from seeking re-employment at electricity companies, and asked electricity companies for their cooperation," Edano told reporters. But he said the ruling Democratic Party of Japan lacks the votes in parliament to make his call a law at this point.

Critics say the practice -- known in Japanese as amakudari, or "descent from heaven" -- creates cozy ties between the government and the nuclear industry at the expense of the public interest. Edano's declaration was "a necessary step but it's not enough," said Tetsunari Iida, a former nuclear engineer who now runs an alternative energy think-tank.

Tokyo Electric is one of the companies that has come under fire for the practice. Company spokesman Hiro Hasegawa told CNN that the company tries to keep some "distance" between itself and the government, but added, "The nuclear industry is a group of specialists. We cannot deny there is close communication."

And Eisaku Sato, a former governor of Fukushima prefecture and a longtime critic of Japan's largest utility, said the nuclear safety agency should be independent and the government needs "to create a sense of safety built on trust."

"This is a test of Japanese democracy," said Sato, who has been battling corruption charges he says are retribution for his criticism of the industry. "We must make a flawless framework for operating Japan's nuclear power plants, one that the people of the world can feel safe about."

Sato told reporters Monday that Tokyo Electric missed a warning signal at the plant less than a year ago. He said emergency generators failed to start when a power failure in June 2010 cut off cooling systems at reactor No. 2, forcing workers to start the diesel-powered backups manually.

Hasegawa disputed that account, telling CNN that emergency generators kicked in automatically and the reactor shut down. Water levels dropped in the reactor for a brief period, forcing the company to declare the incident to the government, but he said no radiation was released.

An investigation later determined that power was cut off by accident when workers for a subcontractor were installing temperature gauges in a cramped space. No disciplinary actions were taken against anyone at the plant, Hasegawa said.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Powerful aftershock hits Japan on 1 month anniversary of fourth largest quake

One month ago the fourth largest earthquake in the world since 1900 struck Japan bringing death and destruction to the nation.  Today the country was rocked by a significant aftershock and more evacuations around a stricken nuclear power plant were ordered.

At 5:16pm local time (8:16 UTC) a magnitude 6.6 temblor struck on Japan’s mainland 22 miles from Iwaki in the Fukushima prefecture.  The quake was felt across the island of Honshu including 100 miles away in Tokyo and at the severely damaged Fukushima nuclear power plant to the north.

Landslides in the city of Iwaki brought on by the aftershock have trapped several people in three houses that were buried officials said.  Fires were burning in some parts of northeastern Japan and power was knocked out to 220,000 homes and businesses.

Immediately following the aftershock Tokyo Electric (TEPCO) ordered the workers at the power plant to evacuate to safer areas.  Power was briefly cut to the stricken plant but soon restored. 

Today’s aftershock follows on a more significant magnitude 7.4 aftershock last week.  Hundreds of smaller aftershocks have struck the region since last month’s magnitude 9.0 quake and tsunami.

Officials recommend more evacuations to escape radiation threat

The Japanese government announced today that it was recommending that more residents in the area of the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear complex evacuate due to the potential for long term health threats.  The new evacuations include the towns of Katsuo, Kawamata, Namie, Iitate and parts of Minami Soma.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano said, "This policy does not require immediate evacuation right away, but we take the long-term perspective, considering the long-term effect of radiation on your health.”

A 12 1/2 mile (20km) radius total evacuation zone has already been established around the failed nuclear power plant.  Residents living from 12 1/2 miles to 18 1/2 miles (30km) from the plant have been ordered to stay inside.

Death toll continues to climb

The death toll from the March 11 earthquake and tsunami continues to climb.  The latest numbers from the National Police Agency of Japan report 13,130 have been confirmed killed.  An additional 13,718 are still missing and are largely expected to not be found and added to the death toll.

Rebuilding of the nation, particularly along the coastal regions where the tsunami sent a wall of water far inland, will be a long and difficult task.  More than 48,00 structures were totally destroyed by the quake and tsunami and an additional 152,000 were damaged. 

The magnitude 9.0 earthquake now ranks as the fourth largest in the world since 1900 and the most powerful to strike Japan since instrumented readings began.  It is likely that when the final death toll is realized the event will be Japan's fourth deadliest quake in history.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Death toll in Japan quake, tsunami tops 12,000

The death toll from the recent 9.0-magnitude quake and tsunami in has surpassed 12,000, while nearly 15,500 remain unaccounted for, the Kyodo news agency reported on Sunday.

The twin disaster that hit Japan on March 11 also triggered a number of explosions at the Fukushima nuclear power plant, which caused several radioactive leaks.

Over 165,000 people have been evacuated from the disaster zone and accommodated in temporary refuge centers across the country, while tens of thousands more still do not have electricity or running water.

The Japanese government has said the damage from the disaster could total $310 billion.

Meanwhile, Russian emergencies services said on Sunday that radiation levels are within the norm in Russia's Far East and the danger of radioactive pollution in the region following the nuclear crisis at Fukushima is unlikely.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Japanese, US military search for tsunami victims

SENDAI, Japan — Japanese and U.S. military ships and helicopters trolled Japan's tsunami-ravaged coastline looking for bodies Friday, part of an all-out search that could be the last chance to find those swept out to sea nearly three weeks ago.

More than 16,000 are still missing after the disaster, which officials fear may have killed some 25,000 people. The 9.0-earthquake and tsunami also ravaged a nuclear plant that continues to leak radiation despite frantic efforts to control it.

Japan's Prime Minister Naoto Kan sounded a resolute note Friday, promising to win the battle against the overheating plant even as atomic safety officials raised questions about the accuracy of radiation measurements there. Residents have been evacuated from around the plant.

On the outskirts of Sendai, near the Japanese military's Kasuminome air base, a constant stream of helicopters roared overhead throughout the afternoon, shuttling to and from the more remote coastal regions. Planes and boats were dispatched from other bases near the city.

Altogether, 25,000 soldiers, 120 helicopters, and 65 ships will continue searching through Sunday. If U.S. forces spot bodies, they will point them out to the Japanese military rather than trying to retrieve them. So far, more than 11,700 deaths have been confirmed.

"Unfortunately we've come across remains over the scope of our mission, so it may be more likely than you think," to find bodies at sea so long after the disaster, said U.S. Navy Lt. Anthony Falvo.

Some may have sunk and just now be resurfacing. Others may never be found. After the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, 37,000 of the 164,000 people who died in Indonesia simply disappeared, their bodies presumably washed out to sea.

The Japanese military stopped short of saying the search would end for good after Sunday, but public affairs official Yoshiyuki Kotake said activities will be limited. The search includes places that were submerged or remain underwater, along with the mouths of major rivers and the ocean as far as 12 miles (20 kilometers) from shore.

Police officers have also been searching for bodies in decimated towns inland, but in some cases their efforts have been complicated or even stymied by dangerous levels of radiation from the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant 140 miles (220 kilometers) northeast of Tokyo.

People who live within 12 miles (20 kilometers) have been forced to leave, though residents are growing increasingly frustrated and have been sneaking back to check on their homes. Government officials warned Friday that there are no plans to lift the evacuation order anytime soon.

"I don't think the evacuation zones make any sense," said Tadayuki Matsumoto, a 46-year-old construction worker who lives in a zone 15 miles (25 kilometers) away where residents have been advised to stay indoors. "They don't seem to have thought it out and are making things up as they go along."

Radiation concerns have rattled the Japanese public, already struggling to return to normal life after the earthquake-borne tsunami pulverized hundreds of miles (kilometers) of the northeastern coast. Three weeks after the disaster in one of the most connected countries in the world, 260,000 households still do not have running water and 170,000 do not have electricity.

Officials at the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna told reporters on Friday that the U.N. nuclear watchdog was sending two reactor specialists to Japan to get firsthand information. They will meet experts in Tokyo and may go to the Fukushima site.

"The overall situation is basically unchanged," senior official Denis Flory told reporters. "It is still very serious."

In a positive turn, an IAEA official also said Friday that radiation levels at one village outside the exclusion zone were improving.

Elena Buglova said 10 samples taken at Iitate — about 25 miles (40 kilometers) from the Fukushima nuclear complex — show that radiation levels are decreasing. Earlier in the week they were substantially higher than levels at which it would recommend evacuations.

Japan's nuclear safety agency on Friday ordered plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co. to review its latest measurements of radiation in air, seawater and groundwater samples, saying they seemed suspiciously high.

TEPCO has repeatedly made mistakes in analyzing radiation levels, and the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency said it might eventually order a complete review of all radiation data collected since the tsunami.

Though the size of recent leaks is unclear, it appears radiation is still streaming out of the plant, underscoring TEPCO's inability to get it under control.

The company has increasingly asked for international help, most recently ordering giant pumps from the U.S. that will arrive later this month to spray water on the reactors.

The prime minister said in a televised news conference Friday that Japan will do whatever it takes to win the battle at Fukushima Dai-ichi, though he warned that it could be a long process.

"I promise to overcome this problem and regain a society where we can live with peace of mind," said Kan, who wore a suit instead of a blue work jacket for the first time since the tsunami. He also looked ahead, saying he wants to do something innovative beyond just restoring the areas that were destroyed.

He vowed that Japan would create the safest nuclear systems anywhere and reiterated that TEPCO will be responsible for compensating victims of the nuclear disaster — a bill that could be anywhere between 1 trillion and 10 trillion yen ($12 billion and $120 billion), depending on how long it takes to resolve the crisis, according to Yusuke Ueda, a Merrill Lynch analyst. Kan said the government will provide some compensation beyond the utility's legal responsibility.

Some cities are already helping their own residents. In hard-hit Natori, next to Sendai, dozens lined up to apply for funds as aircraft searching for bodies zoomed overhead.

Many people lost all of their possessions, including IDs, so the city has created software that compares neighborhoods before and after the tsunami. People point out where they lived, and if the house in that location has been destroyed, they are eligible for 100,000 yen ($1,200) in assistance.

"We have records of everyone that lived there, and so we can confirm identities by asking birthdays and other information," said Takeshi Shibuya, an official at city hall.

Some applying for the funds, like 33-year-old Osamu Sato, said it would be hardly be enough. He and his pregnant wife bought their apartment and moved in six months before the tsunami destroyed it, plus all of their new furniture and electronics.

"To be honest, 100,000 yen doesn't help much," Sato said. "I've lost everything."

Pressure on Japan to widen nuclear evacuation zone

SENDAI, Japan (AFP) – Japan said Thursday there were no immediate plans to widen the exclusion zone around its stricken nuclear plant, hours after the UN atomic watchdog agency voiced its concern over the issue.

In Washington, the Pentagon ordered a Marine emergency nuclear response unit to deploy to Japan as a precautionary move and to stand ready to assist in Japan's response to the crisis at the tsunami-hit Fukushima nuclear plant.

Some 155 Marines from the Chemical Biological Incident Response Force were due to arrive Friday, although there were no plans for them to take part in the emergency work to stabilise Fukushima, US defence officials told AFP.

Iodine-131 in the sea near the plant has risen to a new high of 4,385 times the legal level, the power station operator TEPCO said.

Pressure grew meanwhile on Japan to expand the 20-kilometre (12 mile) exclusion zone around its stricken nuclear reactor after the UN atomic watchdog said radiation in one village 40 kilometres away had reached evacuation level.

In its first such call, the International Atomic Energy Agency added its voice to that of Greenpeace, which has warned for several days that people, especially children and pregnant women, should leave Iitate.

"The first assessment indicates that one of the IAEA operational criteria for evacuation is exceeded in Iitate village," the agency's head of nuclear safety and security, Denis Flory, told reporters in Vienna.

He said the IAEA -- which has no mandate to order nations to act -- had advised Japan to "carefully assess the situation, and they have indicated that it is already under assessment."

The reading in Iitate was two megabecquerels per square metre -- a "ratio about two times higher than levels" at which the IAEA recommends evacuations, said the head of its Incident and Emergency Centre, Elena Buglova.

Japan's top government spokesman Yukio Edano, asked whether further evacuations were needed now, told a press conference: "I don't think that this is something of a nature which immediately requires such action.

"But, the fact that the level of radiation is high in the soil is inevitably pointing to the possibility that the accumulation over the long term may affect human health.

"Therefore, we will continue monitoring the level of radiation with heightened vigilance and we intend to take action if necessary."

Japan cleared tens thousands out of the 20-kilometre exclusion zone around the plant after a giant earthquake and tsunami almost three weeks ago damaged the plant, triggering the world's worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl in 1986.

Thousands more in the 20 to 30 kilometre radius of the plant were initially told to stay indoors and later encouraged to move away.

The United States has advised its citizens to leave an area within a 50-mile (80 kilometre) radius and ordered its military personnel to stay clear of the same zone -- a limit that also applies to the Marines being sent, officials said.

Elevated radiation levels have been detected in the air and seawater near the nuclear plant, and in regional farm produce and Tokyo drinking water.

The anti-nuclear environmental campaign group Greenpeace has set up its own monitoring equipment in Iitate village.

Its radiation safety director Jan van der Putte this week told AFP that "what we're now measuring is a bit of a smoking gun of the radioactivity of the cloud that went over that region more than a week ago.

"And still the radioactivity levels that we can measure today are very significant, to an extent that in some areas (it's) unsafe to stay there for a longer time."

At the plant itself, workers pushed on with the high-stakes battle to stabilise reactors, into which water has been poured to submerge and cool fuel rods that are assumed to have partially melted down.

They are also struggling to safely dispose of thousands of tons of highly contaminated run-off water.

Japan has considered a range of high-tech options -- including covering explosion-charred reactor buildings with fabric, and bringing in robots to clear the irradiated rubble.

A US military barge carrying more fresh water to be pumped into the reactors was expected to arrive near the plant Thursday, the Yomiuri daily said.

Workers also plan to spray an industrial resin at the plant to trap settled radioactive particles, although plans to start Thursday were delayed because of weather conditions, public broadcaster NHK said.

Japan PM: stricken nuclear plant to be scrapped

SENDAI, Japan (AFP) – Japan has said its crisis-hit nuclear plant must be scrapped, but currently had no plans to evacuate more people, despite calls for a larger exclusion zone around the crippled facility.

Grappling with the aftermath of a massive earthquake and tsunami, its biggest post-war disaster, Japan's government hosted French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who called for clear international standards on nuclear safety.

Japan's Prime Minister Naoto Kan said, in talks with the Japanese Communist Party leader, that the facility at the centre of the worst atomic accident since Chernobyl in 1986 must be decommissioned, Kyodo News reported.

Officials have previously hinted the plant would be retired once the situation there is stabilised, given the severe damage it has sustained including likely partial meltdowns and a series of hydrogen blasts.

Radioactive iodine-131 in groundwater 15 metres (50 feet) beneath the plant has reached a level 10,000 times the government safety standard, the plant's operator Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) said early Friday.

It cautioned the figure -- showing radioactive runoff from efforts to cool the plant has entered the water table -- might be revised. TEPCO said Thursday iodine-131 in nearby seawater had hit a new high 4,385 times the legal level.

However, there were no plans to widen a 20-kilometre (12-mile) exclusion zone around the Fukushima plant despite the UN atomic watchdog saying radiation at Iitate village 40 kilometres away had reached evacuation levels.

"At the moment, we do not have the understanding that it is necessary to evacuate residents there. We think the residents can stay calm," said Yoshihiro Sugiyama, an official at the nuclear safety agency.

Japan's top government spokesman Yukio Edano also said further evacuations were not imminent, although he did not rule out that this could change.

"We will continue monitoring the level of radiation with heightened vigilance and we intend to take action if necessary," he told reporters.

The comments came after the IAEA added its voice to that of Greenpeace, which has warned for several days that residents, especially children and pregnant women, should leave Iitate village.

The IAEA's head of nuclear safety and security, Denis Flory, told reporters in Vienna that radiation levels there had exceeded the criteria for triggering evacuations.

He said the IAEA -- which has no mandate to order nations to act -- had advised Japan to "carefully assess the situation, and they have indicated that it is already under assessment."

The reading in Iitate was two megabecquerels per square metre -- a "ratio about two times higher than levels" at which the IAEA recommends evacuations, said the head of its Incident and Emergency Centre, Elena Buglova.

Authorities later said they would Friday lift restrictions issued earlier on drinking tap water in the village, public broadcaster NHK reported.

Radiation exceeding the legal limit was found for the first time in beef from near the Fukushima plant, Kyodo News reported early Friday, adding to concerns over food safety.

The local news agency also said up to 1,000 bodies of tsunami and earthquake victims were lying unclaimed in the nuclear exclusion zone.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy arrived in Tokyo on Thursday in a show of solidarity with the disaster-hit nation, and urged nuclear authorities in the Group of 20 to establish an international safety standard.

"We call on the independent authorities of G20 members to meet, if possible in Paris, to define an international nuclear safety standard" for power plants, he said in a speech earlier in the day at the French Embassy in Tokyo.

"It is absolutely abnormal that these international safety standards do not exist," he said, suggesting the Paris meeting could take place as early as May.

French nuclear group Areva is assisting TEPCO, which runs the Fukushima Daiichi plant, and the Japanese utility has asked it to provide more help, said Areva Japan president Remy Autebert.

"We'll need a bit of time, but our actions will probably increase in response to their requests," he told AFP.

About 150 Marines of the US Chemical Biological Incident Response Force were due to arrive Friday, although there were no plans for them to take part in the emergency work to stabilise Fukushima, US defence officials told AFP.

At the plant itself, workers pushed on with the high-stakes battle to stabilise reactors, into which water has been poured to submerge and cool fuel rods that are assumed to have partially melted down.

They are also struggling to safely dispose of thousands of tons of highly contaminated run-off water.

Japan has considered a range of high-tech options -- including covering the explosion-charred reactor buildings with fabric, and bringing in robots to clear irradiated rubble.

Workers also plan to spray an industrial resin at the plant to trap settled radioactive particles, although plans to start Thursday were delayed because of weather conditions.

Japan auto sales plunge after tsunami

TOKYO – Japan's car sales plunged nearly 40 percent in March as consumer confidence took a beating from the tsunami and nuclear disaster.

Automakers sold 279,389 cars in Japan last month, down 37 percent — the biggest ever year-on-year drop for March, the Japan Automobile Dealers Association said.

The plunge in sales stems from weak consumer sentiment following the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, which decimated much of northeastern Japan, and the ensuing radiation leaks at the coastal Fukushima nuclear power plant.

"People are simply reluctant to buy cars at this time. The tsunami and the ongoing nuclear disaster have depressed consumer sentiment," said association spokesman Masashi Miyajima.

Miyajima said many people in the quake-hit areas were also canceling car purchases.

The tsunami caused massive disruptions in the supply of auto parts, forcing Toyota Motor Corp. and others to suspend production.

JPMorgan said auto output will take time to completely bounce back because of the "breadth of the production chain" that has been affected.

But once normal production returns, auto sales should climb, "especially as the loss of automobiles in affected areas was massive," JPMorgan economist Miwako Nakamura said in a report for clients.

March was the seventh straight month of decline for Japan's auto sales. Before the disaster, sales were falling because of an end to government incentives for purchases of fuel efficient cars.

Japan utility ordered to review radiation figures

TOKYO – Japan's nuclear safety agency ordered a review Friday of the latest radiation measurements taken in air, seawater and groundwater samples around a leaking, tsunami-disabled nuclear plant, saying they seemed suspiciously high.

The utility that runs the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant has repeatedly been forced to retract such figures, fueling fears over health risks and a lack of confidence in the company's ability to respond effectively to the crisis. The Tokyo Electric Power Co. has not been able to stabilize the plant's dangerously overheating reactors since cooling systems were knocked out in the March 11 tsunami.

Among the measurements called into question was one from Thursday that TEPCO said showed groundwater under one of the reactors contained iodine concentrations that were 10,000 times the government's standard for the plant, the safety agency's spokesman Hidehiko Nishiyama said. Seawater and air concentrations from this week also are under review.

"We have suspected their isotope analysis, and we will wait for the new results," Nishiyama said, adding that the agency thinks the numbers may be too high.

TEPCO has conceded that there appears to be an error in the computer program used to analyze the data and that recent figures may be inaccurate. They have indicated they are probably too high but have also said that the figures may be correct, despite the glitch.

The Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency has held out the possibility that a complete review of all radiation data collected since the tsunami might eventually be ordered.

Though the size of more recent leaks is now unclear, it appears radiation is still streaming out of the plant, underscoring TEPCO's inability to get it under control. The company has increasingly asked for international help in its uphill battle, most recently ordering giant pumps from the U.S. that were to arrive later this month to spray water on the reactors.

Seiki Kawagoe, an environmental science professor at Tohoku University, said it was unlikely that radiation seeping into the ground under the plant would affect drinking water. He noted that radiation tends to dissipate quickly in the ground, as it does in the ocean.

But there are two ways the iodine could eventually affect drinking water if concentrations were high enough. One is if it were to seep into wells in the area. For now, a 12-mile (20-kilometer) radius around the plant has been cleared, though residents of the area are growing increasingly frustrated with evacuation orders and have been sneaking back to check on their homes.

The other concern is that contaminated water from the plant could seep into underground waterways and eventually into rivers used for drinking water. Tomohiro Mogamiya, an official with the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare's water supply division, said that was "extremely unlikely" since groundwater would flow toward the ocean, and the plant is right on the coast.

The two closest filtration plants for drinking water have both been shut down because they are just inside the exclusion zone.

"When people return to the area we will test the water to make sure it is safe," said Masato Ishikawa, an official with the Fukushima prefecture's food and sanitation division.

Radiation concerns have rattled the Japanese public, already struggling to return to normal life after the earthquake-borne tsunami pulverized hundreds of miles (kilometers) of the northeastern coast. Three weeks after the disaster in one of the most connected countries in the world, 260,000 households still do no have running water and 170,000 do not have electricity. Officials fear up to 25,000 people may have been killed.

In the latest report of food becoming tainted, the government said Friday that a cow slaughtered for beef had slightly elevated levels of cesium, another radioactive particle. Officials stressed that the meat was never put on the market.

Radioactive cesium can build up in the body and high levels are thought to be a risk for various cancers. It is still found in wild boar in Germany 25 years after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, making the pigs off-limits for eating in many cases.

Contamination has also affected work at the plant itself, where radioactive water has been pooling, often thwarting the vital work of powering up the complex's cooling systems.

Despite the leaks, TEPCO hasn't had enough dosimeters to provide one for each employee since many were destroyed in the earthquake. Under normal circumstances, the gauges, which measure radiation, would be worn at all times.

Officials said Friday that more meters had arrived and there are now enough for everyone.

"We must ensure safety and health of the workers, but we also face a pressing need to get the work done as quickly as possible," said nuclear safety agency spokesman Hidehiko Nishiyama. Until now, sharing meters "has been an unavoidable choice."

TEPCO has repeatedly relaxed safety standards during the crisis in order to prevent frequent violations. That is not uncommon during emergencies.

Though the company has acknowledged that it was initially slow to ask for help in dealing with the nuclear crisis, experts from around the world are now flooding in. French nuclear giant Areva, which supplied fuel to the plant, is helping figure out how to dispose of contaminated water, and American nuclear experts are joining Japanese on a panel to address the disaster.

Japan has also ordered two giant pumps, typically used for spraying concrete, from the U.S. They are being retrofitted to spray water first, according to Kelly Blickle, a spokeswoman at Putzmeister America Inc. in Wisconsin. At least one similar pump is already in operation at the plant.

U.S. troops also are involved in the search for the dead. Japan's defense ministry said that, starting Friday, the two militaries will create joint teams to look for bodies from the air. So far 11,500 people have been confirmed dead. Of those, more than 9,000 have been identifed. Another 16,400 are missing, and many may never be found.

Hundreds of thousands more people are living in evacuation centers, most because they lost their homes in the tsunami. But others have been forced to leave their houses near the plant because of radiation concerns.

Some residents are growing angry and frustrated with the government and are increasingly violating the bans to return to their homes to gather whatever they can find.

Fukushima officials have put up posters in all evacuation centers urging residents not to violate the cordon, but also are pressing Tokyo to arrange trips in for the residents as soon as possible.

"There is no doubt in my mind that it is dangerous in there," said Kazuko Hirohara, a 52-year-old nurse from Minami Soma. "I just wish they would have thought about safety before they ruined our lives."

Friday, March 25, 2011

What Does Japan's Quake Mean for the U.S.?

NEW YORK – What Does Japan's Quake Mean for the U.S.? With a column I wrote recently, I seem to have helped reignite a debate that enrages many geophysicists: Do quakes occur in clusters—and if so, what does Japan's portend for the U.S.? The answer remains far from clear.

Just as with any academic community, the world of geophysics is much divided. While a good number of scientists see as their central mission the need to be able to predict earthquakes, many utterly abhor the notion. Charles Richter (he of the Scale) was vehement: “I have a horror of predictions and predictors,” he wrote in 1977. “Journalists and the general public rush to any suggestion of earthquake prediction like hogs toward a full trough.”

This week I have found myself in the midst of a schism, one that has become apparent in the aftermath of Japan’s Great Tohoku Earthquake of March 11. That catastrophe has reignited a vigorous argument over whether the various grave geological events that have lately occurred around the Pacific’s so-called Ring of Fire—severe earthquakes in New Zealand, Chile, and now Japan—have left the thus-far seismically untouched Pacific coasts of the United States and Canada peculiarly vulnerable. It is a dispute over the notion of "earthquake prediction," more technical than philosophical, and in essence it revolves around two related questions: Do earthquakes occur in clusters, both in time and place? And if they do, might one quake trigger another?

Large numbers of concerned lay observers—who are generally discounted, reasonably enough, by the geophysical community—believe on the basis of recent experience that some kind of linkage between the recent quakes is blindingly obvious. As all newspaper readers must agree, there seem to have been an awful lot of very big earthquakes lately—Kashmir, Sichuan, Haiti, Sumatra, Valparaiso, Christchurch, Sendai—all since 2005.

But such anecdotally based conclusions do not make sense to many geophysicists, who have clogged up the blogosphere in recent days to say so. Typical of these is Andy Frassetto, a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Copenhagen: The idea “of seismic clustering should not be mistaken for a valid scientific concept…it gains legitimacy through repetition in the media,” he writes. “I cannot think of one seismologist who would consent that large earthquakes can be triggered by other large earthquakes occurring thousands of kilometers away. In such a case, would we be safe anywhere?!”

His view is echoed by Christie Rowe, also a post-doctoral researcher at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who writes, “There is no evidence to support the idea that triggering of earthquakes should be related to shared plates—as the entire planet is affected by the seismic waves from large earthquakes, the next big one might as well be in the Himalayan Frontal Thrust or the Northern Anatolian Fault.” In other words, an earthquake in Japan might, if triggering were ever to be proven, cause something in Kashmir or Turkey, and it is both irresponsible and provocative to suggest that it would more probably trigger an event on the same tectonic plate family, as in California or western Canada.

Chile-Christchurch-Sendai—to a lay person, the linkages are as plain as the nose on your face.

But in some quarters, the view is not so doctrinaire. Harold Tobin, professor of Geophysics at the University of Wisconsin, while highly critical of what many of his colleagues deride as "scare-mongering," said that he is not entirely opposed to the clustering idea. “There is an intriguing hypothesis gaining some momentum that earthquakes do occur in clusters, even at long distances,” he wrote. “It is hardly a matter of little doubt. It’s a very new idea, and quite controversial.”

But before mentioning some of those who labor in this very new cluster-trigger field, I have to take courteous issue with Tobin. I wonder if the possibly too-narrow focus of some geophysicists’ perspective keeps some from seeing what is, to others, just plain obvious. For why, indeed, is the notion of clustering so new, so revolutionary?

Geologists have long known, for instance, that the infamous San Francisco earthquake of April 18, 1906, was narrowly preceded by two other devastating events around the Ring of Fire—an earthquake and tsunami off the coast of Ecuador in January 1906, and a powerful earthquake in southern Formosa—Taiwan today—in mid-March. Was that not a cluster? Might Formosa not have played some role in triggering San Francisco?

Much more recently, they must have surely recognized some trans-Himalayan connection between the great Kashmir quake of 2005 and the Sichuan disaster over the hills 30 months later. Were they not linked? Did not Kashmir help release the hairspring that underpinned western China?

Geophysicists do now publicly acknowledge one rather bizarre and provable link. It connects Alaska and Montana, two thousand miles apart—and it was realized after scientists observed that earthquakes on the Denali Fault are swiftly followed by a speeding-up of many of the geysers, of all things, in Yellowstone National Park. Linkage? Triggering?

And now, the Pacific Ring events of Chile-Christchurch-Sendai. To a lay person, the linkages are as plain as the nose on your face.

Yet only a very few scientists agree to say so. Ross Stein, a pre-eminent U.S. government geophysicist at the USGS in Menlo Park, California, is a believer in triggering mechanisms. He is certain, for instance, that the famous 1975 Landers earthquake, near Palm Springs, was linked to and most probably caused some 60,000 shocks in and around Mt. Shasta, 800 miles to the north. Yet he is currently a chastened man. He told The New York Times recently that his community was “humbled” by the lack of real knowledge, despite half a century’s worth of costly (and largely publicly funded) research, about what was truly going on underground. New faults, new structures, kept rupturing, kept causing quakes. “It’s shameful, but we’ve barely scratched the surface.”

Chris Goldfinger, associate professor of marine geology at Oregon State University, is much more unequivocally in the cluster-trigger camp. His particular interest is in the Cascadia Subduction zone, the gigantic undersea fault system that, in his view, poses the gravest of all threats to the Pacific Northwest. “It’s of course connected to the Ring of Fire by other faults,” he is quoted as saying in a new book Cascadia’s Fault, due out this spring by the Canadian author Jerry Thompson.

“We have the Queen Charlotte Fault going off into Canada and the San Andreas Fault going off into California, and all of these faults are physically connected. People used to think that fault lines were isolated from one another, but this doesn’t make sense anymore,” Goldfinger said in a recent interview, after promising that the Pacific Northwest was long overdue for a major quake. “Every piece of the earth is connected, so when one moves it is no longer surprising that the other pieces around it can be affected. When you move one, it affects the others.”

And this idea—that when you move one, it affects the others - is the underlying argument, behind the notion that large earthquakes on one side of a major tectonic plate system may cause, or in some way lead to, events on the plate’s far side. And this is why it is far from inconceivable that the temblors in Chile, New Zealand, and Japan may cause, or lead to, events elsewhere—including in what is unarguably the most vulnerable part of all, the American and Canadian west.

The province of British Columbia, and the states of Washington, Oregon, and California, are due for a big earthquake and a major tsunami. The rupturing of the San Andreas (which last ruptured in 1906) or the Hayward Faults will cause the earthquakes; the much more critical possibility of what is called a full-margin rupture of the Cascadia Subduction zone (which last ruptured in 1700) will cause an immense run of tsunamis. How large these events will be, how deep or shallow—and most importantly, when they will happen—all remain unknown. All that can be said with certainty is that they are more likely to break tomorrow than yesterday.

Are we prepared? Are the buildings in Victoria ready to withstand massive ground-shaking and mighty waves? Are the highway bridges in Portland and Seattle sufficiently strong to cope with the kind of forces unleashed in Japan? Why has it taken 22 years for the Bay Bridge across San Francisco Bay to be retrofitted after a relatively modest quake which caused part of it to collapse in 1989? Are Californians as ready as they might be to deal with the psychological trauma caused by destruction, evacuation, and death on a legendary scale?

All these questions need to be addressed, and addressed more urgently now. If it has taken a brutal trinity of events around the Pacific’s Ring of Fire to bring that sobering reality home, then maybe, at long last, those who live their lives among the stunning beauty of the West Coast may accept that this has become, to use a phrase of the day, "a teachable moment."  Though not before time.

Radiation anxiety weighs on tsunami survivors

FUKUSHIMA, Japan – Like characters from a science fiction film, the radiation screeners at this Japanese evacuation center wear futuristic white suits, surgical masks and hoods. Silver gamma ray monitors gleam in their hands as they wand all who enter.

The sight alone is enough to make some children cry. Adults, too, say the uniforms and unfamiliar gizmos give them the shivers.

"It's like a bad dream that won't end," construction worker Takeshi Nemoto said, cradling his 4-year-old son.

The March 11 earthquake and tsunami caused massive death and destruction across northeastern Japan. But those who live near the crippled Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant face an additional burden: a fear of radiation that experts say could prove more unhealthy in the long run than the still-low levels of leaked radiation itself.

Already, experts are starting to focus on how "radiation anxiety" — the chronic stress, fear and worry that the mere thought of being exposed to radiation can cause — will impact the region's long-term recovery.

"Our work is just beginning," said psychiatrist Akinobu Hata, the director of the Fukushima Mental Health and Welfare Center. "Right now people who have been through this disaster are living from moment to moment. But we expect the cases of depression and other mental illnesses to rise soon."

The fear is palpable.

Frightened by the television news, Sumiko Matsuno, a farmer in Fukushima, went out into her fields Thursday to frantically dig up all the vegetables she could.

"If it's in the ground it's still safe," she said. "The leafy ones are no good anymore. We are digging up all our carrots and onions as fast as we can. We can't sell them, but we need them ourselves for food. We are really worried about our future."

In the evacuation center, that feeling was shared by all.

"I have four children," said Mie Sato, 36, who fled her home in the town of Minami Soma not because of the damage but due to the radiation warnings. "My oldest is pregnant, and I worry about what this will do to her baby. It's just a big burden of anxiety that we all have to bear."

That's not to say the radiation leaked so far poses no danger whatsoever. Workers at the nuclear plant are exposed to dangerous doses as they try to make repairs. Vegetables and water in some areas, including the capital Tokyo, have tested higher for radioactive iodine than government standards allow.

But responders say those threats can be managed. And barring any more major problems at the power plant, most specialists say they do not expect radiation sickness to affect the population at large. So far, no radiation illness cases have been reported among the general public.

"We live in a world that has natural background radiation that's many times greater than the amounts we're talking about here," said Harold Swartz, a professor at Dartmouth Medical School in the U.S.

Hata said that based on studies of previous disasters he expects about 10 percent of tsunami survivors to develop post-traumatic stress disorder.

With jobs, homes and loved ones lost, other mental problems could factor in as well as realities set in. Many people cannot even begin to search for bodies because the government has ordered everyone within 12 miles (20 kilometers) of the nuclear site to leave, and those within an added six-mile (10-kilometer) ring to stay indoors.

"What is unique about this crisis is that we have, on top of all the other suffering, this ongoing radiation issue," Hata said. "We are dealing with an invisible enemy, one that people don't understand well. That adds to the anxieties people already have."

Evacuees from even the areas closest to the plant say that they knew virtually nothing about radioactivity before the current crisis. They look blankly at TV screens showing them updates of the radioactivity levels in their towns several times a day, not understanding what the readings mean.

Hata said efforts are being made to bring in more mental health counselors to aid evacuees but that so far only two child psychologists were available to help.

"The evacuees hear lots of nervous news from Tokyo, which is upsetting," Hata said. "And even when it's good news, if it's coming from people far away it doesn't mean much to them. It's crucial for these people to have someone to talk to face-to-face, someone who is experiencing it here with them."

Aware of the growing emotional burden, officials running the evacuation center have started trying to make the shelter less grim than it was in the first days.

A movie hour is being held for small children. On Thursday, a local restaurant brought in a van full of food and festival toys. Hiroki Miura, a local volunteer, blew up balloons and handed out yo-yos.

"We have to do something to keep their spirits up," he said.

But many evacuees sat listlessly on their blankets or cardboard sheets.

"I can't focus on anything. I just want to go home," said Shigeko Sugioka, 64, who has been huddled in a corner of the center for more than a week. "I'm so tired. We've been through so much."

Breach in reactor suspected at Japanese nuke plant

TOKYO – A suspected breach in the reactor at the stricken Fukushima nuclear plant could mean more serious radioactive contamination, Japanese officials revealed Friday, as the prime minister called the country's ongoing fight to stabilize the plant "very grave and serious."

A somber Prime Minister Naoto Kan sounded a pessimistic note at a briefing hours after nuclear safety officials announced what could be a major setback in the urgent mission to stop the plant from leaking radiation, two weeks after a devastating earthquake and tsunami disabled it.

"The situation today at the Fukushima Dai-ichi power plant is still very grave and serious. We must remain vigilant," Kan said. "We are not in a position where we can be optimistic. We must treat every development with the utmost care."

The uncertain situation halted work at the nuclear complex, where dozens had been trying feverishly to stop the overheated plant from leaking dangerous radiation. The plant has leaked some low levels of radiation, but a breach could mean a much larger release of contaminants.

The possible breach in Unit 3 might be a crack or a hole in the stainless steel chamber of the reactor core or in the spent fuel pool that's lined with several feet of reinforced concrete. The temperature and pressure inside the core, which holds the fuel rods, remained stable and was far lower than would further melt the core.

Suspicions of a possible breach were raised when two workers waded into water 10,000 times more radioactive than levels normally found in water in or around a reactor and suffered skin burns, the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency said.

Kan apologized to farmers and business owners for the toll the radiation has had on their livelihoods: Several countries have halted some food imports from areas near the plant after milk and produce were found to contain elevated levels of radiation.

He also thanked utility workers, firefighters and military personnel for "risking their lives" to cool the overheated facility.

The alarm Friday comes two weeks to the day since the magnitude-9 quake triggered a tsunami that enveloped cities along the northeastern coast and knocked out the Fukushima reactor's cooling systems.

Police said the official death toll jumped past 10,000 on Friday. With the cleanup and recovery operations continuing and more than 17,400 listed as missing, the final number of dead was expected to surpass 18,000.

The nuclear crisis has compounded the challenges faced by a nation already saddled with a humanitarian disaster. Much of the frigid northeast remains a scene of despair and devastation, with Japan struggling to feed and house hundreds of thousands of homeless survivors, clear away debris and bury the dead.

A breach could mean a leak has been seeping for days, likely since the hydrogen explosion at Unit 3 on March 14. It's not clear if any of the contaminated water has run into the ground. Radiation readings for the air were not yet available for Friday, but detections in recent days have shown no significant spike.

But elevated levels of radiation have already turned up in raw milk, seawater and 11 kinds of vegetables, including broccoli, cauliflower and turnips. Tap water in several areas of Japan — including Tokyo — also showed radiation levels considered unsafe for infants, who are particularly vulnerable to cancer-causing radioactive iodine, officials said.

The scare caused a run on bottled water in the capital, and Tokyo municipal officials are distributing it to families with babies.

Previous radioactive emissions have come from intentional efforts to vent small amounts of steam through valves to prevent the core from bursting. However, releases from a breach could allow uncontrolled quantities of radioactive contaminants to escape into the surrounding ground or air.

Government spokesman Yukio Edano said "safety measures may not be adequate" and warned that may contribute to rising anxiety among people about how the disaster is being managed.

"We have to make sure that safety is secured for the people working in that area. We truly believe that is incumbent upon us," the chief Cabinet secretary told reporters.

Edano said people living 12 to 20 miles (20 to 30 kilometers) from the plant should still be safe from the radiation as long as they stay indoors. But since supplies are not being delivered to the area fast enough, he said it may be better for residents in the area to voluntarily evacuate to places with better facilities.

"If the current situation is protracted and worsens, then we will not deny the possibility of (mandatory) evacuation," he said.

NISA spokesman Hidehiko Nishiyama said later that plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co. was issued a "very strong warning" for safety violations and that a thorough review would be conducted once the situation stabilizes.

Meanwhile, damage to factories was taking its toll on the world's third-largest economy and creating a ripple effect felt worldwide.

Nissan Motor Co. said it may move part of its engine production line to the United States because of damage to a plant.

The quake and tsunami are emerging as the world's most expensive natural disasters on record, wreaking up to $310 billion in damages, the government said.

"There is no doubt that we have immense economic and financial damage," Finance Minister Yoshihiko Noda said. "It will be our task how to recover from the damage."

At Sendai's port, brand new Toyota cars lay crushed in piles. At the airport, flooded by the tsunami on March 11, U.S. Marines used bulldozers and shovels to shift wrecked cars that lay scattered like discarded toys.

Still, there were examples of resilience, patience and fortitude across the region.

In Soma, a hard-hit town along the Fukushima prefecture coast, rubble covered the block where Hiroshi Suzuki's home once stood. He watched as soldiers dug into mounds of timber had been neighbors' homes in search of bodies. Just three bodies have been pulled out.

"I never expected to have to live through anything like this," he said mournfully. Suzuki is one of Soma's lucky residents, but the tsunami washed away the shop where he sold fish and seaweed.

"My business is gone. I don't think I will ever be able to recover," said Suzuki, 59.

Still, he managed to find a bright side. "The one good thing is the way everyone is pulling together and helping each other. No one is stealing or looting," he said.

"It makes me feel proud to be Japanese."

Top Artists Rally for Japan Earthquake Victims

With Japan still reeling from the earthquake and tsunami that rocked the nation on March 11, top musicians like Lady Gaga, U2, and Nicki Minaj — along with indie icons like Sonic Youth and Yo La Tengo — are rallying to show their support.

Here's a roundup of available auctions and events, from intimate concerts to rare merchandise like posters and limited-edition vinyl. You can also give directly to the Red Cross, which is raising money for disaster relief. Head here for more information on how to donate.

    Lady Gaga has designed prayer bracelets emblazoned with the words "We Pray for Japan," transcribed in both English and Japanese. The item costs $5, but fans can add an additional donation to a purchase. [Lady Gaga's Official Store]

    U2, Bon Jovi, Rihanna, Nicki Minaj, and Justin Bieber will contribute music to a digital-only benefit album by label Universal, which will raise money for the Japanese Red Cross. The set is expected to be rush-released for this week; a track list has yet to be announced. [Yahoo!]

    Warp Records is selling special-edition T-shirts to raise money for the Red Cross Japan Tsunami Aid Fund. The label is covering manufacturing costs and giving 100-percent of proceeds to charity. [Warp Records]

    Linkin Park's Mike Shinoda has designed two T-shirts that are available through the group's official site, with funds benefitting Music for Relief. The band is also supporting the charity by contributing an unreleased song to the Download to Donate album, which features material from Angels & Airwaves, Counting Crows, Enrique Iglesias, Plain White T's, Slash, and more for a $10 donation.

    Sonic Youth are performing as part of the sold-out Concert to Benefit Japan Earthquake Relief on March 27 at Columbia University in New York. Mike Patton, Yoko Ono, Sean Lennon, John Zorn, Cibo Matto and others are also slated to perform.

    Sonic Youth guitarist Thurston Moore will also take part in another benefit show at the Abrons Arts Center" in New York on April 8, alongside Norah Jones, Buke, Gass, and others. In addition to playing shows, the band is auctioning off a pair of rare posters from the early '90s, along with a pair of custom Vans SY shoes. Head here to bid on the items.

    Yo La Tengo have organized a benefit concert on March 23 at Maxwell's in Hoboken, NJ, with proceeds from ticket sales going to Peace Winds Fund.

    The Mountain Goats are auctioning off an unreleased song on cassette, with the money going to benefit Doctors Without Borders USA. [eBay]

    Beady Eye, Paul Weller, Richard Ashcroft, Primal Scream, Blur's Graham Coxon, and others will play a London benefit at Brixton O2 Academy on April 3. Proceeds will go to the British Red Cross Japan Tsunami Appeal. Tickets go on sale Friday. [NME]

    Fleet Foxes are auctioning off a vinyl test printing of their single "Helplessness Blues" on eBay. The proceeds for this rare item benefit Global Giving Japan Earthquake and Tsunami Relief Fund.

    L.A. garage rockers Black Rebel Motorcycle Club are auctioning off an autographed cymbal used on their last tour, along with a collection of rare out-of-print vinyl. The bidding is still open at Charity Buzz.

    Norway's Serena Maneesh have released a remix of Lindstrøm & Christabelle's "High & Low" on iTunes, with all proceeds going towards the Japanese Red Cross.

    The Wu-Tang Clan's RZA has released a tribute to earthquake victims titled "Gab-Gotcha 'Japan,'" which is available for free over at Soundcloud.

    If comedians Neil Hamburger and Tim Heidecker can encourage fans to raise $10,000 for the Red Cross, the duo will release a new 10 minute comedy bit for free. [Tiny Mix Tapes]

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Disaster in Japan: Latest developments, March 24

(The Yomiuri Shimbun) According to the Compensation for Nuclear Damages Law, which specifies nuclear power plant operators' accountability when accidents occur, the Japanese government could pay between 120 billion yen and 240 billion yen to compensate farmers and businesses near the embattled Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant, sources told Japanese newspaper The Yomiuri Shimbun. Most likely, the government will pay any portion Tokyo Electric Power Co., operator of the plant, could not afford financially.

While TEPCO should shoulder primary responsibility for the nuclear accident, the Japanese government will also help victims, said Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Minister Yoshiaki Takaki in a House of Councillors Budget Committee meeting Tue.

(AP) Nissan Motor Co. said Thursday it is considering moving some engine production from Japan to the U.S. because of earthquake damage to a Japanese plant, another illustration of how seriously the disaster has upended the global network of auto supplies. Car factories could face serious shortages of Japanese parts by the middle of next month unless Japan's auto industry can quickly restart its shuttered production following a devastating earthquake and tsunami March 11, experts say.

(AP) As the toll of the thousands of victims weighs on the consciousness of the Japanese people, and the leaking nuclear reactors at Fukushima scare the country into a run on all basic necessities, the many mountains of debris left by the earthquake and tsunami loom as a daunting challenge. More than five years after Hurricane Katrina, the Gulf Coast region is still not close to being done with cleanup. "In Katrina, you had debris that had seawater, sewage, chemicals, gasoline, oil, that was all mixed together in a toxic soup," said David McEntire, a disaster expert at the University of North Texas. "And you're going to have similar problems with the disaster in Japan."

(AP) Some shops across Tokyo began rationing goods - milk, toilet paper, rice and water - as a run on bottled water coupled with delivery disruptions left shelves bare Thursday nearly two weeks after a devastating earthquake and tsunami. The unusual sights of scarcity in one of the world's richest, most modern capitals came a day after city officials reported that radioactive iodine in Tokyo's tap water measured more than twice the level considered safe for babies.

(Reuters) - Toyko's local government announced radiation has been detected in a vegetable grown in the capital city, according to a Kyodo news agency report cited by Reuters. A green, leafy vegetable with 1.8 times the amount of radioactive cesium was found in Tokyo days after radiation was discovered in plants near the Fukushima nuclear plant 150 miles away.

(AP) - Japan's National Police Agency said 9,811 people died in the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, while another 17,541 are listed as missing.

(The New York Times) - The short-term fix that Japanese workers used to fend off a meltdown at the nuclear power plant crippled by the earthquake and tsunami that hit the nation nearly two weeks ago has created a new problem that could lead to the release of radioactive material.

(AP) - At the tsunami-struck Fukushima nuclear plant, three workers were exposed to radioactive elements. Officials said two have been hospitalized but that they were exposed to radiation levels below the maximum allowed for workers trying to prevent the plant's reactors from overheating.

(AP) - Shops in Tokyo rationed water, milk and other goods as a run on products coupled with delivery disruptions left shelves bare Thursday. Demand for bottled water spiked a day after officials reported radioactive iodine in the capital's tap water was more than twice the level considered safe for infants. The government urged calm and ordered a special distribution of bottled water to families with babies under 1. Even as readings showed Tokyo tap water is safe again, reports emerged of elevated levels of cancer-linked iodine in three neighboring prefectures.

(AP) - In Iceland, officials said they have measured trace amounts of radioactive iodine in the air but assured residents it is "less than a millionth" of levels found in European countries in the wake of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster. The U.S., Canada, Australia and Hong Kong had earlier said they were either halting or upgrading controls on Japanese food imports from areas near the plant.

(AP) - The crisis in Japan has prompted outpouring of aid worldwide. More than 19,000 U.S. Marines and sailors, with 20 ships and 140 aircraft, have delivered relief supplies, surveyed ports, conducted aerial searches and surveys and provided support to rescuers. U.S. 7th Fleet commander Vice Adm. Scott Van Buskirk calls it "the most complex humanitarian mission ever conducted." Even reclusive North Korea says it is helping. State media reports leader Kim Jong Il has sent $500,000 to ethnic Koreans in Japan.

(AP) - Rescuers returned a stranded baby porpoise to the sea after it was found splashing in an inland rice paddy where it was heaved by the tsunami. A passer-by spotted the 3-foot-long finless porpoise Tuesday just over a mile from shore.

Japanese-Americans Band Together To Raise Money For Tsunami Victims

LOS ANGELES — Japanese-Americans, expats and others in the United States opened their hearts and their wallets this week to the victims of Japan's earthquake and tsunami, finding touching and sometimes imaginative ways to donate or raise money for the Asian country's injured and displaced.

Some were motivated by a surge of sympathy, others by friendship or family ties, while many gave out of a need to do something to counter feelings of helplessness.

Sayaka Fukushima said the victims in her native country seemed distressingly far away when she saw coverage of the disasters on TV last week and she was sad not to be able to help them directly.

"I want to do something, but what can I do?" said Fukushima, 26, after making a donation this week at a memorial vigil in Japan's Little Tokyo district.

In San Francisco, meanwhile, Eric Fuji was donating profits from his sushi restaurant to Japan as he awaited word on a missing friend in Sendai.

"We should all be coming together and helping as much as we can," he said.

And in Hawaii, which has the nation's largest Japanese-American population after California, University of Hawaii at Manoa students planned to hold a "candlelight" vigil Friday – using cell phones instead of candles to provide light – to support the people of Japan, where 6,900 people are confirmed dead so far and another 10,700 are missing.

Large-scale fundraising events, along with countless donations by individuals, have been showing some results, with relief organizations having collected more than $87 million as of Thursday, according to a tally by The Chronicle of Philanthropy.

Doug Erber, president of the Japan America Society of Southern California, said collections are easily outpacing those for the 1995 earthquake in Kobe, Japan, which killed more than 6,400.

He attributed the current fundraising success to recent technical innovations, such as those that allow donors to contribute using their cell phones, in addition to the images of widespread destruction seen on TV this time.

"We have footage that Hollywood can only dream of, of devastation that is heartbreaking," he said. "I would compare it to what Americans went through when they watched 9/11."

Not all quake-related activity is aimed only at raising money.

In the Chicago suburb of Arlington Heights, home to a large Japanese-American community, staff at a Japanese supermarket in the Mitsuwa chain were providing customers with white paper squares to be folded into origami cranes, following a Japanese folk belief that you can make a wish come true by folding a thousand of the paper birds.

Store manager Masato Takai, who hoped to have 1,000 cranes to hang in the store by next week, said his wish was for those harmed in the quake and tsunami to have a speedy recovery.

"I know a lot of people have the same feeling where they wish they could go to Japan and help them directly, but we have families and businesses and can't go there," said Takai, whose market is also soliciting cash donations for quake relief.

Cranes were also being folded with get-well wishes in mind at Somerville Elementary School in New Jersey's Bergen County, which has that state's largest Japanese-American population. Students there have also created a video about the disaster to raise awareness among their peers about the crisis in Japan and collect donations for relief efforts.

Nako Yoshioka of the Japan-US Alliance of New Jersey says that her group was planning a fundraising concert for victims in Japan as well as helping coordinate efforts across the state with other groups wanting to help.

"We're doing donations and fund raising for immediate relief efforts, but we're trying to figure out how we can contribute to rebuilding efforts long term," Yoshioka said.

Back in Los Angeles, community groups were planning a series of fundraising events in Little Tokyo over the weekend, some of which will be staffed by fans of Japanese animation who will collect donations while dressed as their favorite "anime" characters.

Little Tokyo is also the location for a daylong series of concerts Friday. The shows are free, but audience members will be urged to contribute money to the American Red Cross fundraisers who will be on hand.

Japan-born recording artist Hidehito Ikumo, who was performing at the event with his bilingual rock group Layla Lane and serving as the concerts' master of ceremonies, said his first impulse after hearing news of the quake was to offer whatever assistance his musical talents allowed.

"I feel pretty powerless and helpless, but if I just think that way and do nothing, it's not going to help, so I decided to do what I can as an artist," Ikemo said.

Radioactive Water in Japan: Tokyo Watches What It Drinks

Tokyo is not one of those cities where I normally worry about drinking the water. In fact, there's something quite delightful about a country in Asia where I can freely swig from the tap. But this afternoon, as I filled up a glass at my hotel, I hesitated. It wasn't like what I was looking for could be detected. Radioactive isotopes are, as we all know by now, colorless, tasteless and odorless. I put the glass down. Maybe I wasn't that thirsty after all.

On March 23, the Tokyo government announced that the level of radioactivity in the city's water, caused by radioactive iodine emanating from the quake- and tsunami-damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant 149 miles (240 km) to the north, had exceed safe levels for infants. I am not an infant. Nor do I panic easily. But like many Japanese who have been determined not to let trace amounts of radiation get to them, this news spooked me. Indeed, on Thursday, anxious Tokyo citizens cleaned bottled water off shelves, leaving only bottles of expensive Perrier in some stores. (See TIME's exclusive pictures of the devastation in Japan.)

As the Daiichi plant has continued to infect the region's air and water, Tokyo citizens have gone through cycles of alarm and ennui. A few days ago, when government officials announced trace amounts of radiation in milk and vegetables from farms not far from the nuclear plant, people grabbed whatever milk they could find in stores that was produced before the radiation tests ran positive. Dairy disappeared. But now milk and yogurt are easier to find in Tokyo, as officials have assured residents that the dairy they're consuming is safe. (Milk and certain vegetable exports from the affected region near the Daiichi plant have been stopped, easing fears.) The milk run has given way to the water scare.

What's interesting to me about Tokyo's reaction to the radioactivity issue is the level of trust that locals essentially have for their government, even if there is a reflexive unease about radiation given Japan's history as the only nation ever to have been attacked by atomic weapons. Compare Japan to China, where vague rumors of Japanese radioactivity making their way west toward the Middle Kingdom prompted a massive run on iodized salt. Why? Because people thought the iodine in the salt could counteract a radioactive haze. The assumption was wholly incorrect, and the whole scene became even more ridiculous when the iodized salt run in turn sparked a run on noniodized salt. The lesson, though, was this: Chinese people don't trust their government. Therefore, stocking up on whatever remedy they can find is a perfectly natural reaction in a country where citizens believe they must fend for themselves. (See Japan's history of massive earthquakes.)

By contrast, Japanese tend to trust that their health inspectors are doing their job. And when the issue is something as basic as water, eschewing it completely from one's diet is all but impossible. I bet that many of the Japanese drinking bottled water at ramen noodle soup restaurants on Thursday weren't thinking about the fact that the broth they were consuming was probably made with potentially tainted water. In fact, I was halfway through my own bowl of soup when that thought occurred to me. I finished the bowl.

By late Thursday, Tokyo health officials had announced that the amount of radioactive iodine in one major water purification plant had dropped to levels safe even for infants. The run on water in Tokyo will likely soon abate, unless levels spike even higher. (By contrast, the China salt scare took far longer to calm down.) In fact, the general consensus in Tokyo appears to be not only that the government should be trusted on these matters but also that foreigners are making too big a deal out of all this radioactivity stuff. Many Tokyo residents were shocked by how quickly a large expatriate corps fled the capital after the onset of the nuclear crisis. It was wounding for a city that prides itself on hospitality and livability. Now there's a paranoid strain of thought, particularly among some conservative Japanese media, that the outside world is obsessing about each radioactive becquerel as some sneaky way to hurt Japan's image. (See pictures of objects found in the rubble of Japan's quake.)

The problem is that the Japanese government doesn't have a spotless history when it comes to informing the public about potential health risks. Indeed, in some cases, the bureaucracy's reaction has been to deny, deny, deny before finally admitting that maybe something had gone awry. In fact, Prime Minister Naoto Kan made his name in the mid-1990s when he fully exposed the fact that the Health Ministry had covered up the administering of HIV-tainted blood to hemophiliacs. (See more pictures of Japan's earthquake.)

That's not to say the government is fooling people now. Indeed, with the constant tests and calls for vigilance, Tokyo health officials appear to be bending over backward to show the populace that they are monitoring the situation carefully. On Thursday, Tokyo government workers began delivering bottled water to all 80,000 local families with infants, as promised by Kan. About 240,000 bottles were scheduled to be delivered on Thursday, according to Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara. The exercise is set to be repeated on Friday. If radiation levels creep back up, then the government may even import bottled water to meet the demand. But who wants to cook with Perrier?