Monday, March 28, 2011


Reconstruction after the quake is happening fast, although most international media are hell bent on reporting only the bad stuff. This is part of the North East Expressway, as restored by 17th March, just 6 days after the quake.

How Japan's Earthquake and Tsunami Warning System Works

The following article from Technology Review is pretty good, if you want to learn more:

Friday, March 25, 2011

FAQ Regarding Nuclear Safety Concerns

Here is a detailed set of questions and answers for those who are concerned.  These are from World Health Organization, not from retired nuclear plant manages as quoted by most mass media :-p

Thursday, March 24, 2011

24 March 2011: Update

Here is the update for today:

Good News:

* The workers at the Nuclear plant confirmed that the steel containment vessel around the core containing nuclear fuel on reactor no. 3 is in tact. So, only one out of the four reactors with problems is not suspected to have a damaged contaiment vessel.

* Temperature measurements from inside reactors (other than one) are now available. One reactors has a higher temperature than desired, but is stable (not heating up further). Additional sea water will be pumped in today to cool it.

* People who have young children are buying bottled water, but there is the attitude of "leave for the others, too!". The metropolitan government is distributing bottled water to families with infants, starting from today.

* Radiation levels South of the nuclear plant (towards Tokyo) have reduced gradually over the past couple of days.

* There is no increase of radiation levels near the plant.

Bad news:

* Two of the workers got injured in an electricity-related accident while testing power connections at reactor no. 3 (they are being treated by a doctor who was flown to the place, and the injuries are not serious)

* Black smoke started coming out from one of the reactors, and this prevented the test run of its cooling pumps scheduled to yesterday's afternoon. Anyway, the smoke has since subsided and they will get back to work on it ASAP.

Panic News (if that is the right title):

* 25 embassies in Tokyo are moving South to Osaka, Kobe and Nagoya. 14 of them are from Africa. It is evident that they have been influenced by a bigger country to do so, the usual petty diplomatics :-p

* The detected level of radiation in Tokyo's water is 190 Bk/kg, less than the Japanese standard for long term consumption (300 Bk/kg). Now we can scare the Europeans who believe in panic news, by saying "the limit for Europe is 500 Bk/kg, you might already be drinking more radioactive water!"

In unrelated news: A crow was making some noise in my balcony last morning. I went out to check and found out that she was trying to take a cloth-hanger made of wire. Must be building a nest. If she tries to do that at the apartment of a CNN reporter, we might see headlines such as "Severe Building Material Shortage in Tokyo" :-p

23 March 2011: Update

The day started with a small quake, but we are prepared for and used to this now. Things are improving slowly, in all fronts.

The government says they will not slow down spending on reconstruction because of worries about national debt or balancing the budget. So far we haven't seen party politics being a bother.

Power supply to all reactors has been restored. We have to appreciate this a lot, because that was done by about 50 people who were taking turns to work a few minutes and then get washed and cleaned before the next turn. Having power means we now have more accurate data from sensors in the plant. Later, cooling pumps can be started reducing the risk of further damage.

I will later write about how the foreign students reacted to the earthquake and related incidents.

21sr March: What Other Foreign Students Say

Some articles by other foreign students and workers here:

About "Panic in Tokyo"

Brian Berry, an exchange student in our univeristy, wrote a nice article titled "Don’t let the Fukushima Nuclear crisis divide us."!/home.php?sk=group_177355305643452&view=doc&id=179049485474034

The article is about growing tensions between foreign friends who had different opinions about what is better to do; leave Japan and be safe, or stay in Japan. In case you cannot link to the article, I post the concluding paragraph.

"In conclusion I only ask this; don't "turn on" your friends, neighbors, and family just because you might place your bets at a different table regarding the nuclear crisis. Each person is in an entirely different situation which will result in varying opportunities that dictate their response. Chastising them for their personal choices is extremely counterproductive, especially during one of the greatest disasters Japan has faced. Support them, offer help when you can, don't condemn, alienate, and abandon them. The most important matter here isn't whether you can boastfully say, "I told you so!" having guessed the end result of this nuclear crisis, but instead whether this crisis can be handled as soon as possible to allow minimal pollution and individual harm, so that everyone can further focus on helping those in the stricken disaster areas in the Tohoku. Finally, please donate, give blood, and volunteer if able."

About how Yakuza, Japanese underworld groups, have been helping (I cannot confirm or reject any of the claims here, though. I never had a chance to even talk to one).

Finally, a radiation dose chart that reveals that even married life comes with some radiation :o)

21st March: My Message to Friends

Hi All,

Thanks a lot for the messages and wishes! I am happy that I can at least give you some information from Tokyo (far from Sendai and Fukushima, but we have to wait a bit more before any volunteering).

Today, Tokyo had rain for the first time after the quake. Some people were scared about rain bringing radiation. I think this did not happen to Tokyo because the winds were from the South for the last couple of days and rains start when the direction is about to change. But some of the troubled areas are having both snow and rain. This makes life hard for them, staying in places without proper insulation and heating. Relief workers are preparing/building emergency shelters just outside the troubled areas, and moving people into them.

With roads being cleared gradually, many places are getting improved supplies of food, water, clothing, baby diapers etc. Several town offices in Tokyo metropolitan region have organized donation and delivery of these things, and people are helping.

One problem Tokyo has is the power cuts and other measures for saving electricity. This is done to prevent sudden blackouts, caused by too much demand when some power plants are not running. With all the rescue work etc, it is better to try our best to prevent them.

Only 50-80% of the usually scheduled trains are operating. Most workplaces have arranged for flex-time work and work-from-home, and some people use bicycles (not uncommon here). The illuminations and big displays in most shopping districts are off.

There is a minor shortage of the supply of diesel, as I found out from a friend attached to a volunteer organization distributing food in the region. About 70% of the oil refineries are working at normal capacity. With more buses and trucks covering the absence of trains, and priority to provide fuel for relief work, a shortage in supply for ordinary vehicles seems normal.

I haven't heard anybody in Tokyo complain, we know what the victims went through and what the evacuees are going through. we in Tokyo have been the lucky ones.

As for the nuclear plant, water in a cooling tank of one reactor started boiling. Having enough water in these tanks is very important, so the fire department, self defense forces and a building contractor are working on hosing extra water.

Reconnecting electrical supply to the last two plants is in progress. It takes a long time to fully test the connections and start electrical cooling pumps, but there is no way to rush it. Everyone's eagerly waiting for this.

Later, I will add a few other links to better-written and thought-provoking articles by fellow foreign students.

20 March 2011: Radiation in Food

The last update for the day, about the "radiation in food" issue.

Because food stuff can accumulate radiation and internal radiation from food and drinks is easier to absorb, there has been strict checking on food items. Yesterday, for the first time, higher-than-normal levels of radiation were detected in some milk and spinach produces in places South of the nuclear plant.

Having the numbers available is a good thing. Both the ministry and a an environment expert (Dr. Masayuki Kubo) contacted by the media confirmed that the number are too small to cause any harm. But the ministry said they will keep checking the food and will not release anything for sale if they have levels beyond normal.

since the reporter kept trying to get some numbers for people to be scared of, and kept asking if how much of contaminated food is safe, Dr. Kubo replied "If they give me this food, I will thank them and have them." "Different people eat different food in different amounts, and not all of them will have the same radiation level. There is no easy-to-remember number that I can give. It is easier to remember that these levels are not worth worrying about."

A health ministry official later added that eating one kilogram of spinach every day for one year is required for any problem at the current levels.

Anyway, the good thing is that people are aware of the risk of contaminated food and all food is being checked. I was small when there was hysteria in Sri Lanka about "Chernobyl Milk Powder."

At the nuclear plant, they activated the pressure gauges of two reactors and got them to be stable. The staff have to both spray water on the things to cool them and connect electricity to them. Unfortunately water and electricity don't go together well, so things are slow. But we have got the best and the bravest people there, I trust them.

20 March 2011: Food Shortage? Not in Tokyo!

On Friday, my mom called to ask if I have food to eat in Tokyo. Those who wanted free air tickets to go back to Sri Lanka created a story :-(.

The real situation was that some people tried to stock things around 12-13 March and supermarket shelves started emptying. But this was controlled well with government requesting people not to buy and stock. Supermarkets promptly put limits on selling rice. Usual for Japan, people complied.

I personally went to several stores from 4 supermarket chains yesterday, before writing on Facebook that food supplies in Western Tokyo are back to normal. And my friends confirm the same for the rest.

The expressway to Sendai and the airport that you saw on TV (being flooded) are now open for transport by relief workers. Food supplies to the troubled areas are improving.

some evacuees were brought to suburbs in Tokyo so that they could be treated better without carrying all the supplies there. People are donating money to support these efforts.

20 March 2011: Useful links

About wind patterns in the area:

Summary: there is no radioactive dispersion in harmful levels, in to other countries.

The efforts for cooling the plants are continuing. They are slow, because the staff have to take turns every few minutes. The situation has improved slightly after helicopters and fire trucks were used to put water in to reactors. Daily updates are here:

They are trying to provide power to a set of electrical cooling pumps (that ran on battery for some time and then stopped). This should complete by tomorrow. Let's hope for the best!

What is Going on at the Nuclear Plant?

Here is a great, lighthearted, but in-context explanation of what is going on.

We should never lose our sense of humor, even at crisis times.

19th March 2011: The Craze for Salt

People in China, Hong Kong and Taiwan were "panic buying" salt. These places are so far that any radiation from Japan will diminish way before reaching them. This is another product of irresponsible reporting by mass media.

Anyway, why salt?

The salt thing began with some couch experts saying "taking additional Iodine can prevent radiation from affecting your Thyroid Gland (so that it won't store radioactive Iodine)." I don't think this is something an ordinary person can manage.

Iodine -> Iodized salt -> salt -> by all salt you can buy

My Chinese friends calling home have a hard time convincing their parents not to panic. Given the wind patterns, mountains and distances, any chance of other countries being affected is near zero.

18th March 2011: Wall of Shame

Most news broadcasters are spreading lies and rumors, instead of looking for the truth and reporting in a balanced way. "Hot News" is the norm it seems.

Here is a "Wall of Shame" compiled by someone here who is trying hard to keep people both sane and informed.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

March 17th: Map from Fox News

Fox News showed this map of nuclear power plants in Japan. Among other names you will not a long and weird place name: "Shibuya Eggman".

Shibuya is a fashion and entertainment shopping district in Tokyo. "Eggman" is a night club there. While this was laughable, it was also a good way to summarize the professionalism of mainstream news and media companies covering the earthquake :o)

March 17th: Updating my Friends

Dear All,
I am sure you are getting all sorts of news on the post-earthquake situation. Herewith find what I experience here and gather from Japanese media, and a few international students who major in nuclear engineering and earthquake studies who also try to keep fellow student informed but not panicked.
First, about the evacuees. Roads are damaged pretty bad, so there is a big problem in getting food and other supplies to the people in evacuation centers. Most places are still risky for ordinary people to remove debris. Japanese self defense forces and some foreign troops are at work. People use Twitter to tell others which places need which things, and in some places that worked. But in other places, contacting people is a problem.
Now to the nuclear reactors. Initially there seemed to be problems in two nuclear plants in the earthquake-hit area, but now it has been found that one is safe. The other one shut down properly with the earthquake, but the cooling mechanisms failed due to the Tsunami. What you hear in the news are the results of overheating happening in 4 of the 6 reactors in the plant, and what people are doing to control them.
At this moment, the situation is borderline. About 50 professionals remain on site despite all the radiation and heat, trying to put sea water in to these reactors to cool them down. Some amount of radiation will keep leaking until they are cooled down to a lower temperature. There is a chance that they get hotter, in which case there will be more damage to the reactors and stronger leaking of radiation. They are trying to repair the powered cooling systems today, I hope they will succeed. The situation can go either way depending on the result.
The international media coverage has been appalling. CNN asked around from foreigners in Tokyo and posted an article about the ground situation. Headings like "Radiation Soars in Japan" started appearing even before the numbers exceeded the radiation in a dental X-ray. Many foreigners got in panic mode and are leaving Japan, or at least moving down south. At our university, we have a discussion group that analyzes news reports and tell the foreign students what to believe.
Diplomats are in usual business, stroking heads while cutting throats. some embassies issue requests for expats to go back to home countries, where the requests include statements like "Japan's incompetence in handling the crisis....." :-p
How you can help: I will later post a few options for donations. Not for the nuclear stuff, but for supporting the people who are evacuated. I will join a volunteer group once we are allowed to go and help.

11th March 2011 - the Quake

A strong earthquake took place around north Eastern Japan in the afternoon of March 11th. The first round of damage came from shaking, but most of Tokyo was ready for a big one so there was less damage from this.
20 to 30 minutes after the quake, a Tsunami hit the Pacific ocean coast. Many people managed to get to safe places. Most of the vehicles you see on videos, floating on water, were empty. However, most of the deaths occurred due to this. At one point 20,000 people were missing, now the numbers are around 10,000.
All phone networks (voice) were congested for at least 16 hours. Emails and Twitter helped a lot to find that our loved ones were safe.
Electricity and water got cut off in many places. Train services stopped for safety reasons, even when there was power. Buses and taxis were full. Most people spent the night at their offices that were also shaking every half an hour or so. I spent the entire night looking for people :o(
Tokyo got almost back to normal in the next couple of days. Train services resumed one by one. Fires were put out. We got home and cleared up the mess there (all furniture at my place either fell down or moved, but that is no damage compared to the other places).
There was a food shortage with highways closed and trains not working, but I still did not see panic buying. We have been in power saving mode, I am online only a couple of hours a day (down from 16 hours earlier). People are cooperating with requests to not overstock food, or overuse electricity.
As for personal experience, it was not as scary because I was in Tokyo. Another thing; What you see on a small TV screen or a few square meters of newspaper happened in a very large area. No single person went through all of that.
Now we have two problems. Providing support to evacuees and dealing with the nuclear reactors. More on them in my next post.