Tohoku Quake & Tsunami Monitoring: "A Lighter Moment"

When systems go down and all prescriptions fail, we have to start thinking outside the box —or that box will soon be a coffin.

Nuclear engineers at Fukushima 1 plant and TEPCO (Tokyo Electric Power Company) headquarters in Tokyo now concede that there's no saving the damaged reactors, which will probably have to be encased in sand and concrete. The situation is fast moving into overtime— either entomb the six reactors or start burying nuclear victims in large numbers.

The engineers have no feasible strategy because their prospects ride on a dirt road that has yet to be completed.

Road Killed

Hundreds of heavy trucks hauling cement and concrete mixers have zero chance of completing the task in time. When the cherry blossoms start to wilt by mid-April, the spring rains begin. The downpours will turn the debris-covered land into a sea of mud, trapping the overloaded trucks in the muck and mire.

Nobody dares suggest a deadline for total meltdown, but I venture to guess that by May Day the reactors will blow sky high, spewing tons of pulverized uranium, isotope particles, irradiated dust and radioactive gases to an altitude of 10,000 feet. The jet stream will do the rest, carrying the deadly cargo to North America and beyond.

Hong Kong LIghters

The only realistic solution to this maddening puzzle, as far as I can see, is to ask the Hong Kong SAR government: "Brother, can I borrow your lighters?"

We are not speaking of Zippos but of the only sea-craft that can rapidly put thousands of bags of cement onto the seawall of Fukushima 1. Lighters are barges with shallow draft, wide of beam and equipped with industrial derricks, commonly known as heavy-duty cranes. Few, if any, are to be found in Japan's deep harbors, but Hong Kong has thousands of lighter barges sitting in Victoria Harbour.

Lighters can unload 40-foot containers from cargo ships, self-propel out to sea, and deliver the goods directly onto the grounds of the nuclear facility. With radiation levels constantly fluctuating on-site, an even better alternative is to put cement mixers aboard the lighters, mix the cement with seawater en route, and force-feed the slurry through connected hoses onto the smoldering reactors.

Instead of planning futile months of land-based operations, the task of entombment could be completed in weeks with an ocean-going strategy.

At this very moment, cargo vessels should be loading up with cement, while tugboats tow a fleet of lighter barges up the Black Current toward northeast Japan. Those are not dangerous unfamiliar waters, since these were charted and navigated since before Herman Melville described "the Japans" in Moby Dick and Jack London wrote The Sea Wolf. The ships just have to avoid crashing into flotsam like Toyotas and Hondas adrift on the waves. Sea transport also will enable the courageous nuclear workers to take a break on ships with showers, hot meals, health checkups and warm bunks.

High technology is not going to save a soul in this crisis. Sturdy and practical seagoing designs from an earlier era, like the lighter barge, can save the day. For sport, I used to row wooden Whitehall boats with the San Francisco rowing club. Back in the good old days, they sure knew how to build seaworthy boats.

Worth Their Salt

As for Hong Kong, the latest mania is the mad shopping spree for iodized salt. The common logic goes that iodized salt comes from Japan and it can prevent thyroid irradiation but future supplies are going to be radioactive. Salt prices are skyrocketing.

These days of Mutually Assured Dementia are also witnessing a boom in sales of Japan-sourced seafood like dried abalone and scallops, sashimi and seaweeds. Store shelves are being cleaned out, and circling-boat sushi bars are jam-packed as diners say farewell to a once healthy diet.

The planes arriving from Tokyo and transiting to mainland airports are fully booked with Chinese tourists fleeing Japan. Now that their hateful traditional arch-enemy Japan could disappear off the map, the Chinese are starting to admit that they deeply love the place and its culture. This love-hate relationship is now becoming a lost romance.

The only workable solution for the survival of the sushi bar is to transplant tiny Japan to the southern hemisphere in places like Argentina and Chile so that the world can someday get back to sashimi and sake. We have to start thinking outside the box, and here we mean the bento box.

Free Agent Unavailable

To keep his independence of opinion, which is often objectionable and sometimes impolite, this journalist remains a free agent outside of the mainstream media. As in the case of all free agents without contact, there's a lot of action and injury but not much in the way of remuneration. So I work as an environmental project developer, and with spring approaching and global warming not getting any cooler, it's time to get "out here in the fields to do what's real where I don't need forgiving."

So it's back to work or end up as destitute as some of the retired free agents of the Oakland Raiders. This Monitor will come out less frequently as I trade in a pen for a plow. A dramatic turn of events could bring me back for a day or two, but let's hope that doesn't have to happen.

Yoichi Shimatsu, former editor of the Japan Times Weekly, has covered the earthquakes in San Francisco and Kobe, participated in the rescue operation immediately after the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004 and led the field research for an architectural report on structural design flaws that led to the tsunami death toll in Thailand.