Sometimes your best option in a crisis is a good lunch.
Enduring Meltdown Week was an experience that none of us will soon forget. Our concerns about radiation were exacerbated by a storm of panicked headlines and rumors that sorely tested our sanity. Here’s how we survived.
Monday, March 16: We started the week with high expectations. Slowly, though, we realized that the world was not the same. First, were the numbers that staggered the imagination – a 9.0 earthquake, fourth strongest ever recorded, and the ensuing tsunami, 14 meters high (with a 23.6 meter peak), that destroyed most of the Tohoku northeast coastal communities. Then there was the gnawing question of whether TEPCO was up to the task of dealing the damaged reactors at its crippled Fukushima power plant. The company’s patchy record of compliance didn’t inspire confidence and it released increasingly grim updates.
The standard TEPCO briefing: “We have this problem and it is a really serious problem. And over here, we have another terrible problem, which makes a very grave situation. Then there’s some other stuff that looks even worse. Oh yes, and there’s white smoke and we don’t know where it’s coming from. Any questions?” These were painful.
Rail service was cut back, making crowded trains even worse. Many international companies closed for the week, and all of my meetings and classes were cancelled. There seemed little to do, but to wait and hope for the best. Japanese were praised in the news for their stoicism and to some extent that was accurate. But there was also hording in Tokyo, a quietly Japanese way to panic — bread, toilet paper, cup ramen, and gasoline were suddenly in short supply. Full disclosure: We bought an extra loaf of bread.
Tuesday, March 17: Another dawn and another explosion at the Fukushima plant, this one releasing a radioactive cloud that was duly recorded on Geiger counters throughout the metro area. Unaware, I sat with a friend at a hamburger shop, trying to make sense of a New York Times story about what happens if reactor core material were exposed to the open winds. The answer was that the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse would arrive posthaste. It was just one of many, so many, stories that speculated on the situation endlessly without offering much context: What’s the worst that could happened? The answers seemed limited only by the imagination of the experts quoted.
As we pondered the story, I received a text message with a radiation chart showing a spike at about 11 a.m. – a huge jump, but a temporary one. I called a contact at the U.S. Embassy, a physician, and he reassured me that the radiation was still relatively low and there was nothing to worry about. Just in case, we discussed how we might take an “evacation” – an evacuation-vacation down south. The cloud passed, but anxiety lingered.
Wednesday, March 16: A rise in radiation levels led Japan to formally accept direct U.S. assistance. Why wait until it gets really scary to accept help? Meanwhile, the barrage of U.S. news continued (I’m mildly paraphrasing): “Meltdown – End of the World Set for Friday Noon — photos and video click here.”
This had become the morning double-whammy routine that we faced during Meltdown Week — a review of screaming headlines and then email from friends begging us to flee, or assuming that we had already fled. Some were better than others; “I hope all is well with you” began one; others were not as good, “It’s so sad see what’s happening to Tokyo.” (I still haven’t answered that one and may never.)
I tried to focus on local news, but kept checking my Twitter feed, looking for a positive international story, but there wasn’t one. The news always sounded better in Japan – even in English. In the U.S., with the cable news war and online competition, everyone seemed to be grabbing for the most sensationalistic headlines – click bait that made you look at the story, though it usually didn’t deliver on the headline. As for Europe, it was clear that Chernobyl had scared the daylights out of the entire continent and still did.
There were also Facebook messages to contend with: Friends-of-friends — “Run, bro! You gotta leave now. It’s gonna blow!” These usually came in late at night. Many friends were checking Facebook into the early hours. I worried how they were handling it.
Throughout Wednesday I searched online for calm explanations and studied the workings of reactors. I was trying to project manage the crisis from a distance, like an armchair quarterback sitting through a routing of his team, hoping to find a sign that showed the coach knew how to turn it around. Yukio Edano, Prime Minister Kan’s chief cabinet secretary, seemed to have a handle on what was going on, but TEPCO….
Thursday, March 17: At 2 a.m., I woke up. I had been texting friends and had gone to bed uneasy about something that I had read about containment. Now, checking messages, I misread something about the reactor core being compromised. Mistake number one, avoid studying reactors via text messaging. I checked U.S. news updates. The headlines were grim. Then checked email, most of it from panicked friends. Mistakes two and three.
This wasn’t funny anymore; enough of trying to understand just what TEPCO was talking, or not talking, about. This was the worst kind of cabin fever – sitting around with nothing to do, but contemplate catastrophic disaster. Every news update focused on the reactors and then followed with replays of the tsunami destruction. It seemed like a preview of what was going to happen in Fukushima. It would have made me crazy if I were sitting in an Iowa cornfield.
I called my friends. “Dudes, I’m going to roll.” (This is a paraphrase). I wanted my wife and son out of the city. Rationally, I knew that things were probably OK, but my argument was: “Why wait to evacuate? Why not get into position to do that well beforehand by simply taking a pleasant vacation in Kyoto?” This was simple strategic planning. I knew nothing for certain about the Fukushima crisis, but I did know a trip to Kyoto would put my family in strategic position. If TEPCO could turnaround this mess, then all we had done was enjoyed these days with a little vacation, rather than sitting around watching disaster coverage. It was a win-win decision.
I informed my wife, who nodded and insisted on breakfast. We discussed our options; Kyoto by Shinkansen seemed best. A friend offered us a visit to Ehime Prefecture via Haneda Airport. All set, I thought. My wife came back with that she’d rather not go to Ehime. And she’d rather not go to Kyoto. She didn’t feel like taking a trip. She thought we should just stay home, remain calm, and not burden the transportation system. I tried to explain about positioning, but was soon discussing if she would go to her sister’s house on the west edge of Tokyo. My final gambit: “Do you know how much stress it’s causing me for you and Andy to be here?” Yes. Her position remained unchanged. Staying at home was causing me as much stress as the Fukushima crisis. It was like being snowed in, without even the pleasure of watching snow fall.
During my final pitch for an “evacation,” TEPCO held a press briefing and finally made sense. They had a plan! Chinook helicopters were dropping water on the reactors to buy time for the pumps to be restarted. It was the first time that I had actually heard how TEPCO would resolve the crisis. And the Chinook were already in action. The first water drop was heroically beautiful – coming in low, pausing just up wind, and — boom — hitting the reactor like a water balloon. Action and a plan!
In the end, we only went as far as lunch. It was a beautiful day and the restaurant, Tonino’s in Shimotakaido, was, as always, rewarding. By the afternoon, the U.S. Embassy had announced that it would evacuate citizens. The U.S. cable news media should pay for it, I thought. They were the ones scaring everyone. I was tired of the situation, but thought that a free trip to the U.S. wouldn’t solve anything.
Thursday night, despite a threat of unplanned blackouts, I went out to comedy night at the Hobgoblin, a pub in Shibuya. Many Japanese companies had remained open all week and everyone seemed to be heading home early to stay calm and conserve energy. At Shimokitazawa, I had to fight through the crowd of outbound passengers to get on the inbound train. I made it to the pub and was informed when I arrived that it was St. Patrick’s. And here I had been thinking it was just another day in Meltdown Week.
Friday, March 18: I went out for an early morning jog. The city was quiet, but by 7 a.m. people were heading into work. Tokyo was continuing despite it all.
I checked the international news and it had all suddenly flipped to Libya. The prospect of the pumps being restored at Fukushima had done the trick. Japan and meltdown were still in the headlines, but considerably lower. Meanwhile, my reactor studies had borne fruit. I particularly liked the Inverse Square Law, double your distance from the radiation source and reduce your exposure to 25 percent.
Saturday, March 19: Despite the improved situation, the exodus continued from Tokyo, making it a rather pleasant place to be. Tokyo is always at least 50 percent over capacity everywhere. Now, it felt like a long holiday — parks were busy, but uncrowded, though the weather was perfect. We spent six hours in Komazawa Park.
Sunday, March 20: Though there were occasional setbacks at the Fukushima reactors, there was a general feeling that we could go on. The golf coach at my son’s sports club understood my feelings about “evacation.” She, too, had tried to be Japanese and handle the crisis by staying inside, conserving electricity and remaining calm. After two days, she couldn’t take it any longer and went out to enjoy the beautiful weather.
Epilogue: As I write this now, we have a little shake; an aftershock somewhere. This is what I’ve learned from the Meltdown Week:
- Humor is an essential anecdote to anxiety.
- Worry makes a good manager; too much makes a bad one.
- Cabin fever exacerbates other anxieties.
- Avoid the study of nuclear reactors via text messaging.
- Enjoy the day.