power

Commemorating Japan suspending nuclear power on May 6, 2012

日本の原発の全休止が実行されて、5月6日に高円寺でパレードがありました。演説、抗議のプラカード、散歩、音楽、そしてコズプレがありました。あいにく、強い嵐が来て、雹が降っていました。それでも、幸せな会合でした。

The day after Japan suspended operations at the last nuclear plant, there was a celebration in Koenji that involved speeches, protest signs, marching, music, and fun costumes. Unfortunately, as soon as the march began, there was incredible hail and wind. Nonetheless, it was a happy parade throughout Koenji.

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Inside a Japanese nuclear power plant

原発についてたくさん勉強になりましたけれども、毎日の生活とエネルギーの本当のコストの問題が残っています。

A fascinating short video from IDG News Service’s @martyn_williams shows the inside of a functioning nuclear power plant in Japan. It’s Kashiwazaki Kariwa, the world’s largest nuclear plant, on the Japan Sea, also known as the East Sea of Korea.

In the past two weeks, we have all learned many details about nuclear power generation: from containment vessels to doughnut-shaped torus, steam venting, cooling pools, basement pumps and generators, and dangers from radioactive iodine and cesium. While the Daichi survived the earthquake, several days without electricity led to pressure build-up, exposed fuel rods, explosions, and radioactive releases.

Most Japanese school children are given tours of nuclear facilities to encourage familiarization and acceptance. Watching the video above, I am struck by the incongruity of these images of rational organization with the recent realization that a lack of power can quickly turn these engineering marvels into a grave threat to human existence.

It is interesting that the video above, and I am certain the hundreds of school tours, fail to mention that the reactors serve a second and equally dangerous function: they are the storage locations for spent nuclear rods. While the active rods have control rods and secured cases, the spent rods seem to be in less protected parts of the reactors.

The explosions at the Daichi nuclear power plant in Fukushima have literally blown the lid off a scary reality that is normally kept far from conscious thinking. Everyone knows that nuclear waste and the long-term dangers it poses are the by-product of this “clean,” low carbon energy. What is less known is that these spent rods remain near population centers and alongside ocean coasts that routinely experience tsunamis and earthquakes. They remain hidden from view within the plants because the rods are difficult to transport safely and few communities would welcome them.

I expect that as the crisis becomes less acute, there will be more attention to the questions of how much energy we need, how to balance what is possible with what is prudent, and how to make visible the true costs of energy production, including the wars used to “secure” petroleum from hostile regions, and the potential contamination of people and land from nuclear power and waste.

In the coming weeks, this blog will focus on recovery from the nuclear crisis, including increased city bicycling, reduced power consumption, and other positive developments. I will also show signs of Tokyo’s spring, and other evidence that the natural world continues in spite of human activity.

Mount Fuji is on fire!

The fall sky is incredibly clear, and we often see Mount Fuji from our balcony at sunrise and sunset in these months. Still there are times I go out into our narrow high-rise garden, look out, and feel startled and humbled by the overwhelming beauty of this celebrated natural and spiritual landmark.

The world’s most famous natural landmarks are in some ways like our global cities’the most famous built landmarks. Mount Fuji, like the Eiffel Tower, has a form and mythology that all of us know before setting eyes on it.

Mount Fuji has been represented over many centuries and in many forms, from fine art, most notably Hokusai’s 36 Views of Mount Fuji, to countless sento mosaics. Until the Meiji era, women were prohibited from its summit. Yet despite our investing so many cultural meanings on this mountain, its presence exceeds human memory and most likely our specie’s future.

Mount Fuji’s sublime appearance on the horizon lifts our vision from a prosaic cityscape, packed with non-descript, high-rise and low-rise residences, television, cellphone and lightening antennas, giant power lines, and a garbage incinerator. As a dormant volcano it, too, has a temporal form, yet its scale and longevity makes our human presence feel very transitory.

Wildness in Nishi Azabu Juban

When my friend Stokes told me about the wildness in Nishi Azabu Juban, I was somewhat incredulous. He was staying briefly at a childhood friend’s house there, and quickly discovered narrow lanes and uncultivated yards and odd spaces that he insisted on showing me. The neighborhood is in central Tokyo, and includes both very expensive homes alongside more modest, old timers’ residences.

In what must be a planner’s nightmare, late summer weeds are pushing out of cracked concrete steps, barely paved lanes lead to houses, and the urban forest seems ready to reclaim the land. There is something comforting to feel wildness in the center of the city, the impermanence of the built environment, and the power of the unplanned.

Flowering vine against power lines

This exuberant, orange flowered vine seems to launch itself off the side of a small two story residence. I love the contrast of the vine with the equally excessive, overhead power lines. The vine is part of the amazing multi-family residential building that is entirely covered in plants, which I included as part of a vertical garden comparison.

Clip-on retrofit of cities

Vanessa Keith has a provocative article about urban reforestation. Rather than focus on new buildings, a small percentage of any city, Keith proposes rebuilding through a “clip-on” to existing urban structures and infrastructures. Keith considers roofs, walls, and highways as valuable surfaces that increase by factors of two (for in-fill structures) or six (for free standing structures) the total surface area of a city.

Her clip-on ideas include green roofs, roof ponds, vertical gardening, waterfalls for cooling and power generation, wind bands, and more urban trees. I like how she connects urban solutions with rural deforestation, and considers government incentives and the potential role of large developers and community groups in creating a demonstration block in New York City.

DPJ and the Environment

solar power

As I wrote earlier, the Democratic Party of Japan, which recently won a landslide election, is calling for major environmental changes, including significantly greater carbon emission targets than the outgoing LDP party. This week I learned that, on the premise of reviving the struggling Japanese countryside, the DPJ has also promised to reduce the gasoline tax and highway tolls. These pro-automobile ideas will not help with emissions targets.

Keidanren, the Japan Business Federation, is strongly opposed to the more ambitious emission goals. By calculating the difference in today’s prices between fossil fuels and renewable energy, numbers have been created to alarm the public about costs to consumers and businesses. A particularly Japanese explanation I heard from one Japanese corporate spokesperson was articulated as concern for the finances of business customers.

This organized resistance to change strikes me as short-sighted. According to a Japan Ministry of Foreign Affairs chart based on International Energy Agency data, Japan is already the world’s most energy efficient nation (calculated as energy supply per unit of GDP): three times more efficient than the global rate, twice as efficient as the US, almost twice more than the European Union, and more than seven times India and China.

In the United States, Obama has called for 25% of electric energy to come from renewable sources by 2025. The DPJ’s solar subsidies and carbon taxes will spur adoption of solar energy, benefiting Sharp and Kyocera. In a world of climate change and peak oil, investing now in renewable energy seems vital for Japan’s energy security and global technology exports.

If the focus is strictly on carbon emissions, and not renewable energy, Japan risks further dependence on nuclear energy. Already 26% of electric power in 2007, nuclear power produces dangerous waste, all the more so in a small island nation prone to earthquakes. This makes news that nuclear industry and international energy leaders are seeking to increase operating rates. From the Japan Times,

Nobuo Tanaka, executive director of the International Energy Agency, urged Japan last year to relax its “hyper cautious” atomic safety standards to increase output.

The country’s operating rate averaged 59 percent in 2008, compared with 90 percent in the U.S. and 76 percent in France, according to industry group the Japan Atomic Industrial Forum Inc.

With energy use increasing in the developing world, now is the time to debate the difference between carbon neutral and renewable energy, and the role of national governments in promoting change that can spur international competitive economic advantage.

japan's nuclear reactors

(from the Nuclear Fuel Transport Co, Ltd)

japan's nuclear ship transportation

japan's nuclear ship transportation

Flower power

Salary man taking keitai sakura photo at Imperial Palace

Spring in Tokyo reminds you of the power that flowers have to capture human imagination. Cherry blossom viewing, which has its own name in Japanese, hanami (花見), draws people to socialize outdoors, drinking and eating on blue tarps with family, friends, co-workers and neighbors.

The power of cherry blossoms (or sakura, 桜) even inspires acts of seeming recklessness. In the photo above, an older salary man is perched precariously above the Imperial Palace moat in his quest to take a close-up photo with his cellphone (or ketai).

As an anthropologist and foreigner in Japan, it is also striking to me how specific flower devotion in Japan is. On a hanami stroll, I noticed this beautiful yellow flowering bush called yamabuki, literally “mountain spray.” I have never seen it on either coast in the United States; an internet search gives its English name “kerria.” Despite the crowds in the Tokyo park, I felt that I alone was giving this flower some attention.

Yamabuki in Narita Higashi, Tokyo

At the end of this month, Good Day Books in Ebisu, will be hosting an author’s reading with Enbutsu Sumiko. Her Flower Lover’s Guide to Tokyo offers 40 walks in Tokyo focusing on seasonal flowers in various parks and gardens.

Enbutsu Sumiko, Flower Lover's Guide to Tokyo