Saturday, 14 January 2012

Flights, Radiation, THJ, Fukushima and Home

It's been a couple of months since I've hit the blog and there'll be more later on a cracking trip home for Christmas and my Tohoku trip in early Jan, but first some thoughts about the flight.

Since the Fukushima reactors blew up last March, the flight back to the UK was the first time I'd had chance to take my geiger counter on the plane to see for myself what the radiation levels really are up at 35,000' and also back in the UK. 

I'm not doing this to show how "safe" nuclear power and radiation is. I'm against nuclear, particularly in an earthquake-prone country like Japan and would dearly love to see Japan seize this chance to develop alternate energies

There are areas within a few kilometres of the plant,and I'm thinking of Kumagawa, the rivermouth break near the town of Okuma that I used to surf regularly but have to face up to probably never being able to surf again. I may be able to drive (or be driven) up there and wheel my wheelchair up to the seawall and peer out at the waves one day, but since I'm 45 now, the chance of me tucking into a hollow one up there again are slim to say the least.
Kumagawa (Bear River) on a flat day in 2004.  
Fukushima Daiichi is in the distance.

Having said that, the main area where I used to volunteer with Team HEAL Japan was Iwaki City, Fukushima which was directly South of the plant and people here desperately needed help. The more heavily contaminated areas in Fukushima are in the opposite direction, a direct line NW from the plant out as far as Fukushima city, and then back down SW again, most of which are well outside the exclusion 20km and 30km areas. Basically, in the direction the wind was blowing when the reactors exploded. You can see the radiation map here

To put the pic above in perspective:
The readings on the flight averaged 4.25uSv/hr. (I'd heard it was 6-7uSv/r)
The usual level in Tokyo is around 0.15uSv/hr or less. 
At Iwaki Volunteer Centre, we'd usually average around 0.25uSv/hr. 
The volunteer locations usually  averaged 0.4uSv/hr peaking at 0.6uSv/hr 
The readings on the flight were 4.25uSv/hr!!

These levels in Iwaki were what I saw on all THJ trips until the last trip where one reading at a new location peaked at 0.7uSv/hr.  

What I measured on the plane meant that if you combined all the additional radiation I was exposed to from volunteering in 2011, I still got more radiation on this 12-hour flight from Tokyo to London... and I went up there a fair bit. That's without the 12-hour flight back a week later.

Friends and family with the best intentions would understandably ask if it really was OK to volunteer up in Iwaki. Friends of other friends were stopped from volunteering in Iwaki either by their own concerns over radiation, or their partner's concerns. One girl I know who was born in Iwaki but now lives in Shibuya, Tokyo was forbidden by her Tokyo-born husband from ever joining us even though she desperately wanted to help.

We would take geiger counters with us though and check the area was reasonable for a day trip, which was basically 9 hours volunteering. Even so, the image of an excessive radiation danger persisted, not helped by possibly well-meaning but unqualified people uploading pics of totally unecessary gas masks, perpetuating the idea of a dangerous environment, proving again that it's much easier to scare than inform.

Put another way, you'd get a similar amount of radiation on a one-way flight from Tokyo to Osaka than you would have from spending the day with THJ.

The same partners who stopped their other half volunteering in Iwaki probably wouldn't think twice about joining them on a free trip to Okinawa (about 3 hrs flight from Tokyo) yet that return flight would give you at least 24uSv. A typical trip to Iwaki, Fukushima with THJ would probably give you just 3.6uSv.

The concern over the higher radiation levels should instead be directed to towns like Date and Fukushima City itself, miles outside the exclusion zone and far from the tsunami relief efforts, but areas where families are still having to live, kids are still having to play and go to school with radiation levels much higher than I saw on the plane. Airlines have limits covering how many hours their crews can fly due to the radiation risk, but still these families in the highly contaminated areas have to struggle on with no evacuation assistance from the government, forgotten and ignored. 

To finish up for now, here are another couple of radiation pics from my time back home. The first pics were taken in my old bedroom at my folks' house back in Wales, UK. It averaged the same as Iwaki Volunteer Centre in Fukushima, and peaked up to what we'd see as a low level reading at the actual volunteer sites. I never thought of needing a gas mask when I was a kid... probably because I didn't!

The photos below were on the drive back from Cornwall, one of the UK's prime summer holiday destinations, about as far SW as you can go in England and 3-4 hours drive from Wales. The average of 0.2 was what we'd see at Tomobe Service Area about an hour before getting to Iwaki, Fukushima. For those that know the area, this photo was taken on the A30 between Bodmin and Launceston.

30 mins later and the readings took a huge nose-dive. This was the lowest I measured anywhere but was still in Cornwall, still on the A30 but between Okehampton and Exeter. 

Next: the trip home
Next,Next: the trip to Ishinomaki

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