What we eat after Fukushima

When people ask me how things are here in Japan after the Fukushima nuclear disaster, I tell them life is mostly normal for my family down here in Tokyo, except that we are very careful what we eat. Given the relatively high food prices in Japan I used to pay more attention to how much things cost, but now I watch more where everything is from. I do it not just for me and my wife but also for our kids (two teenagers).

I really do feel sorry for the farmers in areas affected by the radioactive plumes released after the cores of units 1, 2 and 3 melted down and the buildings of units 1, 3 and 4 blew up in hydrogen explosions, but I largely avoid several prefectures as places of origin. I do not have faith in the government or the food distributors to protect us. The sad fact is, there is very limited capacity for inspections and the surprises just keep on coming. Consumer level geiger counters are not suitable for food safety inspections. That takes high end hardware that costs more than US$100,000 apiece and it’s very time consuming. There are not many of these machines around.

Much of the early radioactive scares were about iodine 131, which decays with a half life of only 8 days. It showed up in Tokyo drinking water and in leafy vegetables as far south as Chiba, in Tokyo’s commuter belt. Within 2 months more than 99% of that I-131 had decayed. By now it’s no longer an issue.

Then attention turned to cesium, which is a more long term problem. It will be with us for much longer, for the rest of our lives in the case of Cs-137 (half life: 30 years). If ingested, about half of radioactive cesium is removed again from the body every 3 months, so it’s not as severe as strontium, which stays in the bones forever, but any internal contamination must be taken seriously. There are parts of my native Bavaria, 1200 km from Chernobyl, where 25 years later most wild pigs shot by hunters still have to be disposed of because they exceed government limits for radioactive cesium. They tell us the radioactive release from Fukushima was much smaller than from Chernobyl, but we’re also much closer to it than Germany was to Ukraine and much of our food is grown even closer to it.

Japanese tea as far away as Shizuoka, some 300 km from Fukushima-I, has exceeded government limits for cesium. Rice straw from northern Miyagi prefecture, some 150 km north of Fukushima-I was too contaminated to be fed to cattle.

Rice prices in shops have increased 20-30% recently, from under 1500 yen per 5 kg bag to 1800-2000 yen per bag. This is the result of consumers stocking up on 2010 rice ahead of the next harvest, which is less than 2 months away. People appear to be concerned about what levels of cesium will be measured in 2011 rice. Beef exceeding government limits had already made it to supermarket shelves and dinner tables before the problem was detected, so people are naturally concerned if this won’t also happen with rice. It’s not an easy problem. By mixing rice from different areas, perhaps no single bag of blended rice exceeds government limits, but that is not the answer. According to current scientific theory, a given amount of radioactivity does not cause fewer cases of cancer by spreading it over more people. The proper answer would be to test rice from every field that is potentially affected and exclude rice from contaminated production areas. Naturally farmers will want compensation for food that can’t be sold, which ultimately will be paid by the government. This sets up a direct conflict of interest: The more testing the government does and the more it does to not dilute contaminated rice among uncontaminated rice, the more money it will have to pay to farmers. It is hard to have confidence that consumer safety will take priority under these circumstances.

A lot of the vegetables for stores in Tokyo are grown in Ibaraki, Fukushima prefecture’s southern neighbour, but whenever I can, I buy produce grown either further north (Hokkaido, Aomori) or further west or south (Gunma, Nagano, Shikoku, Kyushu) or imported (e.g. South Korea). Hokkaido in the far north is about as far from Fukushima-I as Kansai (Osaka, Kyoto) is to the west. Most of the dairy products on my shopping list are now from Hokkaido. Our sea food consumption has gone way down compared to pre-3/11 levels.

Domestically produced (koku-san) foods have been near-religiously venerated in Japan for many years. Consumers have been paying huge markups to eat domestically grown food instead of imports and expected the price to reflect higher quality. For example, I could buy twice was much Chinese eel or three times as much Chinese garlic as their Japanese equivalents for the same money. The Japanese government has maintained domestic rices prices above world market levels. People here always had some suspicion about pesticides or other contaminants in imported food, especially from China, but also from the US. With the nuclear disaster, the tables have turned. Gone is the assumption of safety of “koku-san” food, which will make it hard to maintain the price premium that came with it. The radioactive contamination problem is not just a health worry for millions of Japanese, it is also a devastating blow for the future of farmers and fishermen across much of Japan.

Fukushima: Of cows, water and steel

TEPCO is starting nitrogen injection in unit 3 of the Fukushima-I nuclear power plant to guard against the risk of hydrogen explosions, but it initially faced the obstacle of high radiation levels on the first floor of the reactor, where it wanted to connect the nitrogen pipes. Levels as high as 180 mSv/h between the truck bay entrance on the south-west and the containment at the center made this a no-go area. Efforts by a robot to vacuum radioactive dust off the floor on June 2 were ineffective. TEPCO finally solved the problem by laying 1 cm thick steel sheets on the floor around where workers needed to access.

The ex-skf blog reports that this solution was addressing intense gamma radiation coming up from the basement, penetrating the reinforced concrete floor. The unit 3 reactor building basement was estimated by TEPCO to be flooded with 6400 tons of water, containing 1.5 million Becquerels of Cs-134 per cm3 (Bq/cm3) and 1.6 million Becquerels of Cs-137 per cm3 (Bq/cm3). That amounts to 9,600 Terabecquerels (TBq) of Cs-134 and 10,200 Tbq of Cs-137 or 19,800 TBq in total. Besides that there are other radioisotopes such as Iodine and Strontium.

Because the 1 cm of steel (and below that probably more than 10 cm of concrete) still leave too much radiation through, TEPCO is considering another layer of steel sheets now.

Meanwhile, NHK reported yesterday (July 10, 2011 07:33 JST):

The Tokyo Metropolitan government has begun tracing beef from 6 cows shipped from a Fukushima farm where 11 other cows were found contaminated with high levels of radioactive cesium.

On Friday, tests detected 1,530 to 3,200 becquerels per kilogram of cesium in beef from the 11 cows raised in Minami Soma city, about 20 kilometers from the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. The national safety limit is 500 becquerels. Tokyo ordered the beef to be removed from distribution.

But beef from 6 cows shipped from the farm to
Tokyo and Tochigi in May and June are believed to have already made it to market without radiation testing.

How did that beef end up with 3 to 6 times the legal limit of radioactive cesium? According to the farmer, the cows were raised on hay from last year, before the reactor catastrophe, but were drinking water from a local well.

The ex-skf blog translates a Yomiuri Shimbun article:

According to the investigation by Fukushima Prefecture, 2924 meat cows have been shipped from the same area since the end of April.

See also:

UPDATE (2011-07-13):

It has been reported that the cattle on the farm in Minamisoma had been fed straw that was not covered by a roof and therefore could have been exposed to fallout in rain.

Space Shuttle: Good bye and good riddance

This 135th Shuttle mission will be last before the four surviving vehicles will be sent to museums. Two other vehicles, Challenger and Columbia weren’t so lucky, blowing up with their crews during launch or disintegrating during reentry. The shuttle program managed to kill 14 astronauts during 135 missions, odds comparable to playing Russian roulette.

It also cost about $200 billion dollars, more in inflation adjusted dollars than the moon landings and the atomic bomb during WW2 combined. All in all, it was a huge financial drain, stealing money from real science projects by NASA, most which are unmanned.

Shuttle missions ended up about 20 times more expensive that promised when it was still on the drawing board. A lot of that was for political reasons. Politicians considered it a source of pork barrel spending for their constituencies. It had to serve both civilian and military purposes to get funding, which meant the design became needlessly complex, even though some of the military requirements were never used.

Unlike the initial promise the Shuttle never was a reusable vehicle, since its bulkiest part, the main fuel tank was dropped into the ocean. Most of the takeoff thrust came from solid fuel engines that, once lit, could not be stopped again, a step back behind the technology of the Apollo project. That is why during the launch sequence the Shuttle’s weaker main engines are run up first before the more powerful solid fuel boosters are ignited. The Shuttle may have looked like a space plane, but it was really a glorified fireworks rocket.

The Shuttle’s final safety record was disgraceful, compared to the fairly solid track record of Russian launch vehicles during the same period. The Russians more or less stuck to what had worked during the 1960s.

Let’s face it, the Shuttle was never primarily about science. Whatever wasn’t for military purposes about the program was mostly entertainment. Human crews were supposed to trigger human interest. To justify billions in funding from tax payers’ money, NASA had to get people to pay attention, so they put school teachers, scientists and crew members from many other countries on flights.

Besides the Hubble space telescope the Shuttle mostly lifted bits for the International Space Station. But neither the shuttle nor the ISS ever managed to grab the public’s imagination in the same way the Apollo missions did, except when missions tragically failed.

Things were so different in the 1960s. The Apollo program was born as a prestige project during the cold war, to prove the superiority of the western system over the Soviet system after the Sputnik shock. The Russians had been first in space because their nuclear weapons were too bulky to fit onto less powerful rockets. Consequently they had to develop enormous launchers, which then gave them a head start in the space race.

After the race to the moon had been decided, “detente” arrived and with it an era of cooperation in space, starting with the Apollo-Soyuz flight in 1975. Perhaps the idea was that long term the only goal for manned flights bigger than the Moon could be Mars and that was too far and too costly for anyone to go it alone.

The shuttle was to be the workhorse for construction the ISS, whose main purpose was studying how people cope with long stays in space, knowledge not really very useful unless one is sending people to Mars. The problem with manned Mars missions however is that is you can send hundreds of robot missions to Mars for the cost of a single manned mission. Not only will you get a lot more results, you’ll get them decades sooner, at no risk to human crews.

There’s simply no scientific reason for human flights to Mars. We’re not likely to send any crews there during the next 50-100 years, if ever.

Besides a roughly 1 in 100 chance of getting killed on the way to the ISS or while returning from it on a shuttle flight, shuttle and ISS crews are exposed to high levels of radiation. An astronaut spending 6 months on the ISS gets about 180 mSv, about 9 times as much as the annual limit for workers in a nuclear power station. You’d have to spend a year living outdoors in Iitate village, one of the most radioactively contaminated areas near the Fukushima-I reactor in Japan, to pick up as much radiation as during 1 month on the ISS (30 mSv). The risks on a Mars mission are even worse than that because the astronauts would leave the Earth’s magnetic field and would spend not months but years on a return trip.

Like the ISS and the international fusion reactor ITER, the Shuttle was a mega project that, once set in motion, was almost impossible to stop, even if costs exploded, schedules were overrun by years and results were underwhelming.

Hopefully, even if manned spaceflight continues for the time being, some lessons will have been learnt from the mistakes of the Shuttle project.