pump

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.

Window farm: hydroponic curtain of food

At Tokyo’s Design Touch, I came across Britta Riley’s WindowFarm. It’s a vertical hydroponic system for growing vegetables in apartment windows. I like the idea that city people can grow their own food, that vertical urban space can be better used, and the premise of R&D-I-Y (do it yourself R&D), where customers use web “crowdsourcing” to contribute new ideas about the product.

WindowFarm has appeared at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, the Venice Biennial, and even Martha Stewart’s TV show. The installation I saw really showed off how space-efficient the system is. The parts I am less keen on include the hydroponic system and the pump. The idea of using chemicals and electricity, to me, seems contrary to simplicity and nature. However, I know that many people are strong believers in hydroponic farming.

What do you think? Would you install this system in your home? Could it be done with soil instead of hydroponics? What do you think of creating an online community to support micro-urban farming?

WindowFarm also reminds me of one of the first images from Tokyo Green Space: the “pet bottle” (Japan’s name for disposable beverage containers) supporting a plant in Metro station men’s room. That installation was entirely no-tech, and yet both rely on this ubiquitous and wasteful bottle that we can’t seem to live without.

Suntory Midorie

Suntory Midorie

Recently I visited Suntory Midorie‘s showroom in Aoyama. The entrance vertical green wall with their company name was most impressive in terms of plant diversity and aesthetics. There are also about ten other designs showing the variety of looks they can create with wood frames and internal pump and watering system.

Suntory Midorie system

Suntory Midorie has created these indoor walls for offices, malls, cafes, airport lounges, and hair salons in Tokyo and Osaka. The systems use artificial planting material (half the weight of soil), hydroponic systems automated with pumps and timers, with water collecting at the base. The water drips from top to bottom once a week, and Suntory Midorie provides monthly maintenance to its corporate clients.

Suntory Midorie roof

In addition to these framed walls, Suntory Midorie also makes a horizontal roof top system that’s been used by Mitsui on an office tower near the Imperial Palace to mitigate the heat island effect and lower air conditioning costs. Suntory Midorie has done some exterior green walls, for a cafe, a hotel pool area, and a group of Shibuya vending machines.

Suntory Midorie home

A miniature system of small indoor frames, with no mechanical system, is sold online for residences and marketed as something young girls might enjoy taking care of. Suntory Midorie was founded in March 2008, and became independent of  its beverage manufacturer parent company Suntory in April 2009.