Will Japan be Vaccinated by November?

“I want vaccines to have been given to all residents who want to receive them by the October-November period,” Japanese prime minister Suga Yoshihide said in a parliamentary debate on Wednesday, June 9, 2021. He also estimated, the grand total of doses could “exceed at least 40 million by the end of this month.”

As of June 8 the count on the Prime Minister’s Office (Kantei) website stood at 19.4 million doses, so to hit 40 million doses by the end of June requires a little more than 900,000 a day (20.6 m doses in 22 days). From the published numbers it looks like we may already be in that vicinity for the daily rate.

Even though the number of doses per day for residents age 65 and above (“koreisha”) for the most recent date added is still coming in at under 500,000 the day it’s released, but many of the local counts arrive delayed. The daily counts will later increase through daily retroactive updates. By the time all numbers for a given date have trickled in over the course of several weeks, the total often doubles. For example, the May 30 “koreisha” total was originally released as 200,187 but within 10 days it had grown to 405,165.

Let’s do a quick back of the envelope calculation to see if the projection for vaccinating all adult residents of Japan who want to get vaccinated by the end of November is realistic.

If they hit 40 million doses by end of June (which as I mentioned above requires an average of 900,000 doses a day until then) and we take a figure of 110 million adults of a a population of 126 million: assuming 80 percent of them would opt to get vaccinated, we end up with 88 million people times two doses per person, i.e. 176 million doses. Subtracting 40 million done by the end of June leaves 136 million doses to be injected between July and November (5 months). Divide the total by the roughly 150 days and it becomes clear that if they maintain about 900,000 a day for the next half a year they will indeed be done by the end of November.

However this ignores that the vaccinations are proceeding at vastly different speeds in different cities and prefectures. All things staying the way they are, once the most efficient places are done (which would happen before November) and only the laggards remain in the race, the 900,000 a day average would no longer be sustained. So the key will be to speed up the places that are lagging behind others right now.

How realistic is the 900,000 a day goal if daily vaccine counts still pop up on the Kantei website at less than 500,000? What’s the real number right now?

We can make a rough guess of what percentage of the actual daily vaccinations are represented in the initial count that gets published for a given date by looking at past data.

For example, the count for June 9 published today (June 10) for 65+ is 474,484. The actual number is likely to be over a million, as I’ll explain below. The published number is a partial count, as only about 50 percent of the vaccinations are reported via VRS (Vaccine Recording System) within one day. The rest arrives later. Another 10 percent or so arrive the next day, then another 5 percent, etc, etc until we get to over 99 percent of the total after a month or so.

I looked at the 28 days ending on June 8 and how they had changed on June 10 vs. June 9 in the Excel spreadsheets. They increased by factors of 1.0015 to 1.1845. Multiplying all these increases by each other to get the cumulative 28 day growth yields a factor of 2.27.

I repeated the same exercise for one day earlier, i.e. 28 days ending on June 7 and their change between June 9 vs. June 8. The daily increases range from 1.0058 to 1.1885. Multiplying 4 weeks’ worth of increases gives a factor of 2.47.

If we apply the lower of these factor values to today’s addition, on the assumption that the spread of what percentage of reports comes in after how many days is consistent, that would suggest an actual figure of 1.08 million vaccinations of residents 65+ done yesterday whose total count will be known by July 7 (after 28 days of reports still arriving). That’s on top of another 160,000 or so vaccinations of healthcare workers, by the way.

While it’s disgraceful that we have to figure out the state of the campaign so indirectly (because of a broken IT system built using 385 million yen of our taxes), this exercise at least gives us a good guess of how things are really going.

On that basis I’d say the government’s outline is plausible: Japan is likely to reach a goal of 40 million doses deployed by the end of June and full vaccination of willing adults by the end of November.

Setagaya Vaccination Update

I live in Setagaya, the most populous of the 23 Special Wards (ku) of Tokyo. Out of about 195,000 residents aged 65 and over, about 141,000 have made reservations for vaccinations. Of those 73,000 have received at least one vaccine dose and 8,000 of these have received both doses. There are vacant reservation slots for another 54,000 people.

Starting from next Tuesday (June 15), tickets will be sent to the next group, including people with medical conditions and people aged 60-64. That includes my wife and myself. Note that it’s not your age today that counts but age on March 31, 2022. So anyone born before April 1, 1962 counts as age 60 and up! This is consistent with the system used for elementary school enrollment in Japan.

The next groups after that will be:

  • Age 50-59 (born before April 1, 1972): from June 30, 2021
  • Age 40-49 (born before April 1, 1982): from July 5, 2021
  • Age 30-39 (born before April 1, 1992): from July 12, 2021
  • Age 16-29: from July 20, 2021

Currently there is a published list of vaccination sites with available slots per day for each date until the end of August. At the moment free slots are available starting from early July (i.e. with a 3 week wait list). The wait list most likely will grow significantly, seeing the rate at which age groups will be added vs. the rate at which people are currently getting vaccinated.

Online reservations can be made 24 hours a day, except for website maintenance periods. Reservations can also be made by phone during daytime, but the number used is a 0570 number not covered by flat rate mobile phone plans and unreachable by IP telephony services such as Skype or Google Voice. For people who only have a mobile phone and who don’t have internet access this is not very convenient.

For the senior citizens the city has been offering a service where they can visit city run facilities who will help them make an online reservation using a smartphone. This service was further publicised via the jichikai (neighbourhood associations) in Setagaya.

Meanwhile the number of shots given to senior citizens has surpassed the number of shots to healthcare workers (10.7 vs 8.7 million doses) and first doses given to healthcare workers are exceeding 5 million, more than the 4.8 million previously quoted as the total number of healthcare workers eligible for them. Compliance seems exceptionally high.

In total, about 14.5 million out of 126 million residents have received at least one doses. The Olympic Games will begin in 44 days.

The TerraPower Natrium Reactor – a Quick Review

TerraPower, a company funded by billionaire Bill Gates, has teamed up with several partners to build a demonstration nuclear power station in Wyoming by the end of the decade. Several sites are under consideration. The plan is to re-use the grid connection of a former thermal coal power plant, of which Wyoming has many.

The Natrium reactor developed by TerraPower in cooperation with GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy is quite a departure from the design of the light water reactors (LWRs) that produce the bulk of nuclear power worldwide today. For one, its output is highly variable because it incorporates gigawatthour (GWh) energy storage using tanks of molten salt. The design is quite innovative, which creates both upsides and challenges.

After reviewing the company’s website and watching a webinar, I am quite impressed but also concerned. The reactor will still run on uranium and will produce radioactive fission products that will need to be contained and stored safely for thousands of years. This is still a largely unsolved problem. Countries that have been generating power from nuclear fuels are today sitting on thousands of tons of waste kept in intermediate storage, still without a proven long term storage solution. Eight decades since the start of the “atomic age” with the Manhattan Project that gave us nuclear reactors and atomic bombs we are only now seeing the first permanent storage site being used in Finland. Some consider this the Achilles heel of the nuclear industry. Proponents of nuclear power will argue that, given we already have existing waste, this is a problem we will need to address anyway and that the volume of highly active nuclear waste will remain relatively compact. Nevertheless, there is a lot that can go wrong there, especially if the volume keeps increasing.

What most excited me about the reactor concept was its incorporation of the heat store using molten salt tanks, which it borrowed from concentrated solar power (CSP). Everything from the molten salt tank to the grid connection is basically the same as in this type of solar power plant. The major difference is that the heat source is not solar power focused onto a tower by thousands of mirrors but an underground nuclear reactor. This means the designers could use existing technology developed to maturity over the last 2-3 decades for use in solar projects in Nevada, Australia, Morocco and other locations.

This part of the plant is conventional technology that will not be subject to the same regulatory oversight as the nuclear portion, making it easier and cheaper to build. At the same time, the nuclear portion of the plant is much smaller and simpler, requiring a lot less concrete and steel than in a LWR per MW of output capacity.

By incorporating the heat storage, the electrical output of the power station can be varied considerably – the TerraPower presentation showed a range of about 240 to 500 MWe, with 345 MWe available continually without charging or discharging the heat store. Output that varies by 100 percent roughly covers the demand swing between day and night in many power markets. If combined with solar and wind, the stored heat can be used to smooth out fluctuations in power output from those natural energy sources. Heat from the power station may also have applications for desalination, industrial processes and residential heating.

Conventional nuclear power stations such as PWRs or BWRs can not vary their output very much. They basically can only run at 100 percent load or be switched off. Once shut down, bringing them back up again takes a very long time. That makes them suitable only for base load but not for demand peaks such as in the afternoon or evening. For that they would have to be combined with energy storage such as pumped hydro, opportunities for which are limited by geography. Due to the literally built-in output flexibility of the salt storage system, a zero carbon grid could theoretically incorporate a lot more Natrium output capacity than would be possible with existing LWRs. From an economic point, it means the operators in a competitive electricity market with bidding for supplies can sell more power at lucrative peak prices instead of having to try to find buyers at night when demand and prices are low.

So what’s the catch? The nuclear reactor itself is a sodium-cooled fast reactor (SFR), basically a Fast Breeder Reactor (FBR) without the breeding: Except for the absence of a breeding blanket made of depleted uranium that slowly turns into plutonium, the technology is very similar. Perhaps you remember the Monju reactor in Fukui, Japan that was shut down after a major accident in 1995. The operators attempted to hide the extent of a coolant leak and fire, which led to a 15-year shutdown. After a second accident in 2010 the reactor was eventually decommissioned. In 1966 the prototype Fermi 1 FBR in Monroe, Michigan suffered a partial meltdown. It was permanently shut down in 1972. Several other sodium-cooled fast reactors have been built around the world, such as the French Superphénix, the Prototype Fast Reactor in Dounreay, Scotland and the SNR-300 in Kalkar, Germany. All of the above have since been shut down due to high costs or troubles or, like the one in Kalkar, were never even started up.

While sodium has a high temperature range between melting and boiling point and is a good heat conductor, it also reacts violently with water and oxygen. Naturally, you can not put out a sodium fire with water. Normally the top of the reactor vessel is filled with an inert gas such as argon to prevent sodium fires but it needs to be opened for loading and unloading fuel, during which time the sodium has to remain heated above its melting point. You do not want to start a fire then.

If an LWR overheats, steam bubbles will form that reduce the criticality, interrupting the chain reaction. By contrast, control of the chain reaction in SFRs depends 100 percent on positioning of the control rods.

While the cooling pipes will not have to withstand high steam pressures as in a BWR, they will be subject to thermal stress: The coolant temperature in an SFR is much higher, around 550 deg C (1020 F) which is basically red-hot and hot enough to melt some aluminium alloys (and of course salt, for the heat storage). When SolarReserve decided to build a molten salt CSP solar power station in Nevada, it turned to Rocketdyne to make some of the metal parts, because of their metallurgical expertise in rocket engine nozzles that are also exposed to high temperatures.

There are other viable solutions for base load in a zero carbon grid, such as geothermal power, utility scale battery storage, thermal storage using rock heated electrically with surplus wind and solar or green hydrogen powering fuel cells or gas turbines. Costs for wind, solar and battery storage have been falling rapidly for years. Once renewables are cheap enough, you can partially address issues of intermittent output by overbuilding capacity and simply idling some of it when not needed. Or you can use spare output when supply exceeds demand to produce hydrogen, for making ammonia and for use by the steel industry.

Some of these solutions depend more on geography than the Natrium reactor, which can be installed on any continent and provide power at time of day and in any season. However, it would definitely need to be safe and reliable. Ultimately, this new technology will first have to prove itself.

Vaccination Progress in Japan

The City of Setagaya (東京都世田谷区) has announced the dates when vaccination will be expanded beyond the current group 2 (residents aged 65 and above). Between June 15-19, coupons will be mailed to group 3 which includes:

  • people with existing medical conditions
  • people aged 60-64 (anyone born no later than March 31, 1962)
  • people working in elderly care

Group 1 were the health care workers, if you are wondering!

Currently about half a million vaccinations are happening in Japan per day, about 2/3 of them aged 65 and above, 1/3 health care workers. As of Friday, 2021-05-28, over 92 percent of healthcare workers had received at least one shot and over 60 percent had received both. That leaves them only about 350,000 shots short of full coverage for first shots. About 1.55 million healthcare workers have only received one shot, so fully vaccinating them with a second shot in the next three weeks will be the bulk of the remaining vaccinations for this group.
Of the people aged 65 and above, 12.46 percent have received at least one shot and 0.86 percent have received both. Meanwhile the Olympics start in 52 days…

Setagaya also announced that more reservation slots would be opened at mass vaccination sites for people aged 65 and above, recommending people in that group who currently have dates in August to move them to July (i.e. cancel in August, make new reservation in July). This will then free up those slots for the next group.
This means there’s a good chance that both my wife and I (who were born before the March 1962 deadline for age 60-64) will get vaccinated in August.

In my last post I had pointed out that daily vaccination totals for healthcare workers and people above 65 was being handled differently. One set was being updated retroactively, the other set only once per listed date.

Basically, for healthcare workers the government publishes daily numbers (on weekdays, excluding public holidays) of the number of total shots given since the previous published total. That’s why numbers only get added for the final date, once a day. It is also why no vaccinations are listed on Saturday, Sundays and holidays — not because no healthcare workers were vaccinated on those days, but because no results are published on those days. Consequently, healthcare worker stats do not show how many healthcare workers were actually vaccinated on a particular day.

For people aged 65 and over, they precisely track the totals by the date the doses are used. So there are entries for Saturdays and Sundays, even though it may take until Tuesday for them to be listed on the website. Furthermore, unpublished counts of shots already given weeks ago are still finding their way to the Prime Minister’s Office and are then added. Here’s the total given for April 14, as listed on the day the numbers for a given recent date were also added:

May 18: 2,533
May 20: 2,666
May 27: 2,793
May 30: 3,078

A near 20 percent increase for vaccinations that already took place over a month ago is quite surprising, considering that vaccinations are tracked with Android tablets with software specifically developed for the purpose. How can a computer-based system be so slow? It actually makes fax machines look good by comparison (yes, they are still widely used here in Japan)!