Of all the horrors of Japan’s earthquake and tsunami, the radiation released from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant was not the worst. Three reactors melted down, but better engineering and stronger containment meant that the resulting radiation levels were significantly less severe than those of Chernobyl.

That doesn’t mean the local wildlife—or, necessarily, the local humans—came through unscathed, though. Earlier this year, bluefin tuna turned up off the coast of California sporting elevated levels of cesium. Not a huge deal: Tuna already contain natural levels of radiation much larger than the amount they contracted from Japanese waters.

Now, somewhat more disturbingly, researchers have found “severe abnormalities” in butterflies collected from Fukushima last year. In a new paper published in Nature's online journal Scientific Reports, a Japanese research team reports that adult pale grass blue butterflies have shown mutations to their wings, legs, and antennae at rates far higher than those of the normal population.

What’s alarming—though not entirely unexpected—is that the relatively mild mutations found in the butterflies initially collected at the scene seem to be getting worse in their offspring. That’s true for offspring bred offsite as well as second-generation butterflies found at Fukushima, indicating that the radiation has caused lasting genetic damage to the species. 

How much the Fukushima radiation will affect human health remains unclear. No one died as a direct result of radiation at the site, and only about 100 workers have been identified as having incurred levels of radiation high enough to significantly increase their cancer risk. Still, the mutant butterflies aren’t a particularly encouraging sign.

The report released Thursday describes a post-tsunami breakdown in communication and cooperation between those who operated the Fukushima plant and those who handled Japan’s nuclear safety.

The prime minister’s office waited too long to declare a state of emergency. Tepco’s disaster response manuals were out of date and missing key diagrams. The company was too slow in relaying information to the government.

Then-Prime Minister Naoto Kan traveled to the plant mid-meltdown and “diverted the attention and time of the on-site operational staff and confused the line of command.”

“Had the head office of Tepco actively communicated the on-site situation from the start, and explained the severity of the situation to the other parties,” the report said, “there is a possibility that the distrust — and the confusion in the chain of command that followed — could have been prevented.”

The 10-member commission compiled its report based on more than 1,000 interviews and 900 hours of hearings.

Stunning trailer for the new documentary on Buddhist responses to 3.11 by Tim Graf and his colleague. Look for this in festivals across the world and at a special screening for the American Academy of Religion meeting in Chicago this November.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Buddha of 3/11 fame now home


KYOTO — A gold-coated Buddha statue has been returned to Kiyomizu Temple in Kyoto after being shipped to Rikuzentakata, Iwate Prefecture, which supplied uprooted Takata Matsubara pine trees to build it.

News photoAt home: Kiyomizu Temple’s Dainichi Nyorai statue is seen in Kyoto. KYODO

The 2.7-meter-tall statue of Dainichi Nyorai, a Buddha signifying the universe, was made of pieces from pine trees uprooted by the March 2011 tsunami.

Kiyomizu Temple had asked the Traditional Arts Super College of Kyoto to build the statue before the twin disasters struck, but afterward students decided to build it from pine trees in Rikuzentakata, collecting about 30 pieces of tsunami-wrecked trees.

More than 10,000 people helped to carve the statue by chisel, including Bhutan’s royal couple when they visited Kyoto last November.

The statue was sent to Rikuzentakata on April 26 to give disaster-hit residents a lift, as it was made from local pine trees. It is also viewed as a symbol of the shattered town’s regeneration.

About 20 of the students, who began building the statue last summer, Tuesday carried it into the main hall of Kiyomizu Temple, covered with a white cloth. Visitors and onlookers applauded as the cloth was removed, and a monk then recited a sutra.

Jun Hirayama, 20 and his grandmother, Akiyo Hirayama, 70, lost their home in the Japanese city of Sendai when the tsunami swept it away on March 11, 2011. They nearly lost their lives when it overtook the car they were driving to escape the wall of water. Akiyo spent a night on the roof of the half-submerged vehicle while Jun hung onto a tire — drifting in freezing waters all night.  Akiyo’s husband, Shinetsu Hirayama, with some family members in another car, was able to make it out safely.

 Jun Hirayam, a college student, had performed as a part-time music DJ at a nightclub, but he lost everything including his clothes and music equipment to the tsunami.

“Even a year after, I still dream about the tsunami every month.”

Inside Japan’s Nuclear Meltdown

The desperate days after the Fukushima nuclear disaster, told by those who were there.

February 28, 2012

In the days after a tsunami crippled Japan’s Fukushima power plant almost one year ago, a small group of engineers, soldiers and firemen risked their own lives to prevent a complete nuclear meltdown.

Investigative reporter Dan Edge wanted to find out what it was like for the workers who were inside the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant when the crisis began. His new Frontline documentary chronicles what happened to those plant engineers, as well as what happened to the small corps of workers who entered the power plant in the days after the disaster.

Edge talked to reactor inspectors, Fukushima residents and nuclear scientists in the Japanese government to piece together Inside Japan’s Nuclear Meltdown, which premieres at 10 p.m. EST Tuesday on PBS.

He tells Fresh Air's Dave Davies that after the earthquake and tsunami hit, power went out in Fukushima Dai-ichi, leaving the remaining workers stranded in the dark.

"It must have been horrific for them," says Edge. "Not only do they have no power for the cooling systems, they have no lights for the instrumentation. They do not know what is happening inside the nuclear reactor. They feared the worst."

Improvising, the workers went out into the parking lots of the plant and ripped car batteries out of their cars in order to bring some of the instrumentation in the plant back to life.

"They discovered that the pressure in the reactor is out of control," he says. "It’s much, much, much too high. And this is a nightmare scenario for someone who works in nuclear power plants."

Almost a year after the Japanese Tohoku earthquake and mega-tsunami, the Pacific Ocean is still dealing with the consequences of the catastrophe.

A mass of debris was washed out to sea as floodwaters receded from the land, and some of that wreckage continues to float around the ocean.

Most of it headed eastwards, according to modelling work by the Hawaii-based International Pacific Research Center.

Its staff have given an update to this week’s biennial Ocean Sciences meeting.

"We can only use our model to make projections," explained International Pacific Research Center (IPRC) scientific computer programmer Jan Hafner.

"So far, the debris field has spread in length more than 2,000 nautical miles, and is more than 1,000 nautical miles wide," he told BBC News.

That is approaching 4,000km by 2,000km.

Japanese estimates suggested perhaps 20 million tonnes of debris were generated by the earthquake and the incoming rush of water on 11 March last year.

Most would have stayed on land, and a fair proportion pulled out to sea would have sunk rapidly. But it is possible a million tonnes is still floating on the ocean.

TOKYO, December 2, 2011 (AFP) - Japan is looking to launder tsunami debris in a giant washing machine to get rid of radiation from the Fukushima nuclear accident, a researcher said Friday.

In a scheme they hope will result in finally being able to dispose of contaminated waste left by the waves that crushed towns on the country’s northeast coast, a cleaning plant will be built near the Fukushima Daiichi power station.

Shredded waste — including the remains of houses and cars destroyed by the tsunami — will be put inside a huge water-filled drum where steel attachments will scrub away radioactive particles, the researcher told AFP.

The plan is a joint scheme between Tokyo-based construction company Toda Corp. and the Japan Atomic Energy Agency.

"We, as a general contractor, have experience of cleaning soil and hope that we will eventually be able to decontaminate soil as well as debris," said a research at Toda Corp, who asked not to be named.

He said researchers will experiment with pure water and detergents to find the best way to decontaminate the waste and hope to be able to recycle the water using a series of filters.

In an initial test they will use a tub 120 centimetres (four feet) long and plan to install multiple washing drums three times larger than that once the project fully launches, he said.

Large areas around the Fukushima plant have been left contaminated with radiation since the tsunami of March 11 knocked out its cooling systems and sent reactors into meltdown.

The world’s worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl has not directly claimed any lives, but has left tens of thousands of people displaced and rendered whole towns uninhabitable, possibly for decades.

The radiation that has leaked from the crippled reactors has contaminated the waste left behind by the tsunami, complicating the clean-up operation.

The Japanese government and plant operator Tokyo Electric Power have pledged to bring the reactors to a state of cold shutdown by the end of the year.

Government planners have said radiation-contaminated debris could be stored in a facility in Fukushima prefecture for at least 30 years until its final destination is determined.