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Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Japan, ZAMG & Contamination

By now one would hope that the very worst fears over the Japanese disaster including the nuclear crisis are fading.

However we now move into another type of trouble zone. It seems clear that TEPCO and other workers at Daiichi are making progress, but we are far from significant resolution. Contamination levels locally are rising. Further, the general rescue and relief efforts for the survivors of the quake/tsunami enter a difficult point now.

At the end of next week we can probably begin to guess at the economic impact with some probability of being off no more than 20-30%. Right now that is not possible.

The next few weeks will be very difficult for the government. It is hard for the people in the worst hit areas to understand why more significant relief has not arrived. It is even harder for the government to manage public perceptions of risk (you don't want to understate or overstate) due to a series of communication errors, which, to be fair, were partly the fault of external organizations like WHO. Having been just told that there's no need to worry about food and water, the Japanese government is now forced to implement a bunch of control measures due to food and water contamination. This is the sort of thing that will really worry the general population.

The relief efforts: By now the severely hit areas have mostly exhausted local supplies of food. water and fuel, and are utterly unable to provide medical care for a substantial portion of the refugees who need it. The only solution is to move a lot of refugees out in groups, because without power almost everything is difficult. A population without clean water is a population at high risk. The Japanese authorities are working on the exodus solution, but it will be very difficult to implement culturally. Also many of the refugees have hopes of finding other family members. Unfortunately the growing suspicions about the government will make the task of moving refugee groups out far more difficult.

Transport routes to the NE are still quite constricted. There has been a lot of road damage. Ports, which can in some local areas handle a surprising amount of supply shipments, have been substantially damaged. The initial clearing operation is complete for main roads, but truck drivers are experiencing locally difficult roadways with partially washed out portions. In some areas there is some tidal flooding (although I don't think this has impacted main routes) because the coast has subsided and they are seeing peak spring tides this week.

The Daiichi plant crisis: My guess is that after Thursday we will know more about conditions and possibilities for control at the plant. So far the plant is still workable for major control measures. That is the most important element. They have some robotics and may be able to do some of the riskier work with robots. The information being released on the plant is now much more detailed.

Yesterday, however, the Japanese government had to issue a string of warnings and embargoes on foods produced further away from Daiichi and even one warning about Tokyo tap water, although the higher contamination found there was only in one out of five water plants and was relatively low level. But still, once you have to tell the population of a major metro area that their infants shouldn't be drinking the water, you know the situation gets difficult immediately. The mother who will give her three year old water that she has been told is too dangerous for her infant is a rare phenomenon. Bottled water in Tokyo is going to be very difficult to find. This marks a major negative turn in the general situation. {Edit: The reporters were clearly confused as to why the government said it was no risk but not to use the water (or eat the vegetables). There are two reasons to give the warnings. The first is that risk from accumulated exposure over a period of time is very different from short-term exposure. The second is that due to the very erratic pattern of contamination, the particular tests probably imply much lower dosages for most ingesting the general flow, but higher dosages for some. Since you can't know the real maximum, once your test results go past a certain level avoidance of the source is wise.}

As a result of the bad testing results, the Japanese government expanded testing instructions to six provinces (prefectures).

Because some emissions from the plant will continue for weeks, and because there is quite a bit of emissions in the air already, some of which has been transferred to the soil (and milk, water and crops), it is likely that problem areas will continue to spread. This sort of contamination is always erratic. It does not correlate well with distance from the site, because it is dependent on weather patterns and precipitation. Thus they can't predict exactly where serious levels of contamination are going to show up without pretty widespread testing. To understand how erratic it is, you might want to look at the Chernobyl cesium map. However, this map is huge and will take a long time to load. It might lock up your computer, so be careful.

ZAMG continues to update their dispersion pattern maps for the Daiichi incident. English speakers should read this pdf first, especially noting the color scheme and the correlating contamination levels. Quite a bit of the "plume" depicted actually carries radiation levels that are about at background level, so do not make the mistake of running while screaming when you go to the main page and see the plume hitting CA.

What US radiation monitors are detecting are very small quantities of short-lived fission by products rather than higher than average levels of radiation. World-wide radiation monitoring networks are looking for this sort of thing because it tells you that something has happened. Radioactive materials with half-lives in days or a few weeks do not waft around the world normally.

The estimate of 20%-50% of Chernobyl emissions seems to have originated with ZAMG. It also seems to be decently grounded. This is probably a Level 7 incident and certainly a Level 6. Link. Some of the contaminated areas will not be usable for agriculture for years, although to date those areas are small. High levels of iodine have mostly been reported; iodine doesn't sit out there for long. But the growing levels of cesium being reported would cause a much longer period of quarantine.

The power situation: TEPCO is projecting that as weather moderates, the blackouts will be mostly or completely abated. However it is also projecting that in the summer it will be forced to use blackouts again. The government and industries are supposed to be discussing the power supply situation with an eye toward imposing rationing on some industrial plants. I think until this is resolved it is impossible to say too much about the six-month impact on Japan's economy.

There is another thing I am watching closely. I wonder what the effect on ocean transport off the n/w coast of Japan will be. It is too soon to predict now, because we do not know what the situation at the Daiichi plant will be in several weeks. However I would hazard that it will be difficult to cross the plume ocean zone repetitively without incurring significant vessel contamination for slower shippers. This would be less of a problem for a vessel used to transport oil, coal or the like, but a potentially serious problem for a vessel used to transport goods such as foods.

I am pretty sure that shellfish from the plume area off Daiichi shouldn't be eaten.

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