My brain hurt like a warehouse

David Bowie's concept album
about mankind's foreknowledge
 of the end of the world
As the first anniversary of the earthquake-tsunami-nuclear meltdown syndrome approaches, I thought I would write a more personal account of what it feels like to have experienced life in post-disaster Japan.
On March 11th I was living in Toronto with my wife and children, safely removed from the disasters unfolding in our home country. We had been living there for only one year on a temporary leave, and we were due to go back to Japan on March 30th. As we watched events unfold we became more conflicted about what to do. We proceeded with plans to leave our rented house, sell the car and book a hotel for our stopover in Los Angeles, but all the time we were thinking it may be madness to return to Japan. For two weeks in March we seriously had to consider the possibility that Tokyo was slowly being rendered uninhabitable, and we might never see it, or all our loved ones there, again. But we’d just wave that thought away, wondering if we had watched too many disaster movies.
In any case, how do you call up the boss and announce to colleagues that you’re not coming back because you think they are all doomed? Businesses and schools were all getting ready to carry on as usual, as people believed, to some extent, the official reassurances and at the same time resigned themselves to their fate, and buried their fears in a place they didn’t want to go. Of the fifty million affected people, few of them had a foreign passport or a country to escape to.
 Three days before departure, there still had not been much reassuring news about Fukushima Daiichi, then there was a warning that iodine 131 levels in Tokyo drinking water made it too dangerous to be consumed by infants. This was the major indication that things were much worse than had been admitted, and it hinted that the trend might worsen. We put the brakes on our plans for departure. We cancelled our flights, even though it was too late to stay on in our rented house. We spent the next two weeks occupying my sister’s apartment while we waited for a sign that the death spiral of this nuclear plant was being brought under control. By mid-April this seemed to be the case. We might evacuate later if it became clear that we had to, but in the meantime we had a job and mortgage payments to get back to.
It turned out that the nightmare we contemplated in March, from a safe distance in Toronto, was not at all unrealistic. Later in the year, inquiries revealed that had the people in power been just a little more negligent and incompetent than they actually were, the nuclear contamination would have led to the necessity of a “voluntary migration” over the next year away from Tokyo and most areas of Northern Japan. The US government was aware of the danger at that time, and dependents of military families in Japan were allowed compensated voluntary evacuation, which most of them took. Several thousand of them spent a couple weeks at hotels stateside.
The details of how dangerous the situation really was are only now becoming clear. The New York Times reported today that an independent private study now completed concludes that the risk of a much larger accident was much higher than a previous government study concluded. The Rebuild Japan Initiative Foundation “… offered one of the most vivid accounts yet of how Japan teetered on the edge of an even larger nuclear crisis...” After the accident, conflicting reports appeared asking whether TEPCO president Masataka Shimizu had actually called for the evacuation of all staff from Fukushima Daiichi, a decision that would have led to the ruin of Japan. Government reports later claimed that he had said only some of the workers should withdraw, but the private report found that he did, in fact, want to withdraw everyone. This finding suggests that top management did not even understand the fundamental science of the crisis, or the potential dangers of the reactor cores and spent fuel. Or it seems they lacked the reasoning skills needed to conclude that lives would have to be put in danger in order to save many more lives.
 The New York Times report goes on to describe the private report as saying,

“Mr. Kan and other officials began discussing a worst-case outcome of an evacuation of workers at the Fukushima Daiichi plant. This would allow the plant to spiral out of control, releasing even larger amounts of radioactive material into the atmosphere that would in turn force the evacuation of other nearby nuclear plants, causing further meltdowns…. The report also described the panic within the Kan administration at the prospect of large radiation releases from the more than 10,000 spent fuel rods that were stored in relatively unprotected pools near the damaged reactors. The report said it was not until five days after the earthquake that a Japanese military helicopter was finally able to confirm that the pool deemed at highest risk, near the No. 4 reactor, was still safely filled with water.”

Thus it was only on March 15 then that they knew that the worst case had been averted. The report credits Prime Minister Kan with making the right decision. Mr. Funabashi, the lead author of the report concluded, “Prime Minister Kan had his minuses and he had his lapses, but his decision to storm into TEPCO and demand that it not give up saved Japan.”
Despite this finding that the worst had been averted by March 15, the fallout from the reactor explosions showed up for months afterwards, in places that had been said to be safe. By a stroke of luck, 80% of it fell over the ocean, but the remaining 20% came down in dry or wet deposition in varying patterns. For example, the unlucky town of Kashiwa, a Tokyo suburb located in Chiba Prefecture, became a hotspot as hot as many places in Fukushima, and this was just because of the way the rain fell on a couple days in March.
Most disturbing of all is that the danger has not really been resolved. The damaged cores of reactors 1-3 are still in a perilous state, and the large spent fuel pool of the reactor 4 building, housing a massive pile of spent nuclear fuel, looks like it could crumble at any time in the next large earthquake, tsunami, plane crash or act of sabotage. Note to Japanese government: Have you ever heard of a no-fly zone? 
The Reactor 4 Building, February 2012

Akio Matsumura, founder and Secretary General of The Global Forum of Spiritual and Parliamentary Leaders on Human Survival, has taken up the reactor 4 building as a top priority. He declares on his website:

“I, along with many eminent scientists, are emphasizing the precarious situation of the fourth reactor that contains 1,535 nuclear fuel rods in the pool and is balanced on the second floor, outside of the reactor containment vessel. If the fuel rods spill onto the ground, disaster will ensue and force Tokyo and Yokohama to close, creating a gigantic evacuation zone. All scientists I have talked with say that if the structure collapses we will be in a situation well beyond where science has ever gone. The destiny of Japan will be changed and the disaster will certainly compromise the security of neighboring countries and the rest of the world in terms of health, migration and geopolitics.”

One of these eminent scientists, Bob Alvarez, added, “… the risk of yet another highly destructive earthquake occurring even closer to the Fukushima reactors has increased, according to the European Geosciences Union. This is particularly worrisome for Daiichi’s structurally damaged spent fuel pool at reactor No. 4 sitting 100 feet above ground, exposed to the elements. Drainage of water from this pool, resulting from another quake could trigger a catastrophic radiological fire involving about eight times more radioactive cesium than released at Chernobyl.”

Most people, even the highly educated ones I work with, seem oblivious to the danger they passed through and to the sword that still hangs over them. In addition to the situation at Fukushima Daiichi, there are other hazards in the enormous amounts of spent fuel stored all over Japan. Japan really has few options for long-term storage. In a certain sense, Japan is just one big dirty bomb waiting for an event to set it off.
As I walk in Tokyo these days I keep thinking, ”What would that have been like, for everyone to know that they had to get out within the year?” What an instant, profound awareness of how much we have screwed the future. I have an exquisite appreciation of my daily bread and my family, and as for everyone else, as the song says, “I never thought I’d need so many people.”

(I would like to credit the comedian and superb monologue artist Lee Camp with some inspiration for this post on the theme of carpe diem.)

By David Bowie

Pushing through the market square
so many mothers sighing
News had just come over,
we had five years left to cry in

News guy wept and told us
earth was really dying
Cried so much his face was wet
then I knew he was not lying

I heard telephones, opera house, favorite melodies
I saw boys, toys electric irons and T.V.'s
My brain hurt like a warehouse
it had no room to spare
I had to cram so many things
to store everything in there
And all the fat-skinny people, and all the tall-short people
And all the nobody people, and all the somebody people
I never thought I'd need so many people

A girl my age went off her head
hit some tiny children
If the black hadn't a-pulled her off, I think she would have killed them

A soldier with a broken arm, fixed his stare to the wheel of a Cadillac
A cop knelt and kissed the feet of a priest
and a queer threw up at the sight of that
I think I saw you in an ice-cream parlor
drinking milk shakes cold and long
Smiling and waving and looking so fine
don't think you knew you were in this song

And it was cold and it rained so I felt like an actor
And I thought of Ma and I wanted to get back there
Your face, your race, the way that you talk
I kiss you, you're beautiful, I want you to walk

We've got five years, stuck on my eyes
We've got five years, what a surprise
We've got five years, my brain hurts a lot
We've got five years, that's all we've got

Five Years, written by David Bowie and released in 1972. It was the opening track on the album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. The song describes a civilization with foreknowledge of Earth dying within five years due to resource exhaustion. More background at The Ziggy Stardust Companion, with excerpts from a Rolling Stone interview in February, 1974 between William S. Burroughs and David Bowie.

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