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Sunday, June 12, 2011

BIG IN JAPAN

Mutant rabbits, economic meltdowns and nuclear tourism


In the first week of June, media attention shifted briefly from the Fukushima reactor calamity to skirmishes on the floor of the National Diet, where the government headed by Prime Minister Naoto Kan survived a no-confidence vote.

News photo
Hopping mad: Image of a YouTube video, which has gained media attention recently, showing a baby rabbit born without ears in a village just outside the Fukushima 30-km exclusion zone.

But the Fukushima reactor troubles keep coming back, creating a state of affairs best summed up by an obscure corollary to Murphy's Law that goes, "After things have gone from bad to worse, the cycle repeats itself."

While workers and remote-controlled robots were struggling to grapple with the hydra-headed reactor troubles, a separate story went viral on YouTube, where a movie uploaded by a user named "yuunosato" on May 21 had already been viewed more than 1.8 million times as of June 9. Titled "Tokyo Denryoku Fukushima Genpatsu Jiko-go ni Umareta Mimi-Nashi Kousagi," ("Earless Baby Rabbit Born After the Tokyo Electric Power Co.'s Fukushima Reactor Accident"), it shows a cute albino bunny at a farm in Namie-cho, a village just outside the 30-km exclusion zone.

The bunny shows no signs of sickness. It hops about its enclosure, wiggles its nose and nibbles away at sansai (mountain vegetables). But without those distinctive floppy ears, Bugs looks a little like a guinea pig.

"I've been raising rabbits for over 10 years, and this is the first time something like this has happened," the clearly disturbed owner, a woman in her 50s, tells Flash (June 14).

Rabbits' gestation period is approximately four weeks, so the earless bunny was definitely conceived after the March 11 accident. "After its birth, I also stopped eating sansai," the owner frets.

An accompanying photo of a radiation meter on the farm premises displayed a count of 2.4 microsieverts per hour. Readings in central Tokyo, by contrast, have hovered around 0.06.

A professor of zoology at the Tokyo Institute of Technology would not rule out the possibility of the birth defect being caused by radiation exposure to the mother rabbit, but he told Flash it would be difficult to ascertain the cause of the mutation. Needless to say, no one at this stage even wants to think about the potential effects on the humans who will be born from around this autumn.

Liabilities aside, Tokyo Electric Power Co. (Tepco) faces a business meltdown that is rife with serious implications. Its shares, long favored by institutional investors, have lost nearly 90 percent of their value since March 11, and concerns have arisen that the pension funds of several dozen major corporations will be hit with large losses.

But the consumer economy appears to be making a comeback of sorts. As the inevitable summer heat and humidity approach, retailers are trying to lure shoppers with gempatsu tokuju (nuclear reactor special demand). "Super Cool Biz" lightweight summer garb is in. To deal with perspiration and body odors, drug stores are pitching packets of disposable deodorant wipes. Appliance stores are pushing electric fans, said to consume about 50 percent less power than do air conditioners. And those who can afford it are considering bulky, rechargeable power backup devices that sell for around ¥210,000. A huge selection of battery-powered goods — such as lanterns utilizing an array of light-emitting diodes and mosquito repellent devices — are being snatched up to help make it through unexpected power blackouts.

This special demand is also having an impact on service industries. Popular tabloid Nikkan Gendai (June 7) observed that as a sizable number of salaried workers will start work one or two hours earlier in the mornings, some pubs have shifted their happy hour periods, particularly on Thursdays and Fridays, from the previous 5 — 7 p.m. time segment to 4 — 6:30 p.m. Other food and beverage establishments, however, don't expect customers while the sun is still above the horizon. "It's not worth our time to open so early," was how one operator put it.

While optimism may be premature, it's inevitable that the troubles will eventually wane. As unlikely as it appears right now, some day the coastal towns in Fukushima may even become destinations for "nuclear tourism."

Shukan Shincho (June 9) considers the appeal of Bikini atoll in the Marshall Islands, a former German colony administered by Japan from 1920 under a League of Nations mandate, where the United States conducted atmospheric tests of thermonuclear devices. Following years of decontamination at 14 sites, the average radiation was found to be 0.026 microsieverts per hour — lower than Tokyo is at present. (Immediately following the tests in 1954, the hourly count was a dangerously high 28 microsieverts.) Since 2001, small groups of divers have been visiting to explore the donut-shaped lagoon, where they can swim past the sunken wrecks of the Japanese battleship Nagato and U.S. aircraft carrier Saratoga, which were used as test targets.

Those visiting the Las Vegas area can also join the free monthly bus tour to Yucca Flat, site of 739 nuclear tests from 1951, operated by the U.S. Department of Energy. No protective clothing is necessary.



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