March 23, 2011

JAPAN NUCLEAR CRISIS : TOKYO ISSUES TAP WATER WARNING FOR INFANTS

[The spread of a small amount of radiation is inevitable, considering the steam that is generated as emergency workers spray water on damaged reactors and cooling pools at the Fukushima complex. Government and company officials were nonetheless expressing growing optimism that the crisis was closer to being brought under control.]

By DAVID JOLLY and KEVIN DREW


TOKYO — Radioactive iodine detected in the capital’s water supply spurred a warning for infants on Wednesday as the government issued a stark new estimate about the costs of rebuilding from the earthquake and tsunami that slammed into the northeast of Japan this month.
Ei Yoshida, head of water purification for the Tokyo water department, said at a televised news conference that infants in Tokyo and surrounding areas should not drink tap water. He said iodine-131 had been detected in water samples at a level of 210 becquerels per liter, about a quart. The recommended limit for infants is 100 becquerels per liter. For adults, the recommended limit is 300 becquerels. (The measurement unit is named for Henri Becquerel, one of the discoverers of radioactivity.)
The Health Ministry said in a statement that it was unlikely that there would be negative consequences to infants who did drink the water, but that it should be avoided if possible and not be used to make infant formula.
“It’s unfortunate, but the radiation is clearly being carried on the air from the Fukushima plant,” said Yukio Edano, the chief cabinet secretary. “Because it’s raining, it’s possible that a lot of places will be affected. Even if people consume the water a few times, there should be no long-term ill effects.”
Mr. Edano said the government and Tokyo authorities were discussing measures to help families with children.
The warning applied to the 23 wards of Tokyo, as well as the towns of Mitaka, Tama, Musashino, Machida and Inagi to the west of the city.
The announcement about the water added to the growing anxiety about public safety posed by the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station, which was severely damaged by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. Earlier Wednesday Prime Minister Naoto Kan said the public should avoid additional farm produce from areas near the power station because of contamination, according to Japanese news media.
The government found radioactive materials at levels exceeding legal limits in 11 vegetables in Fukushima Prefecture, the Kyodo news agency reported. Shipments of the affected vegetables from Fukushima Prefecture ended on Monday.
On Wednesday Mr. Kan also suspended shipment of raw milk and parsley from neighboring Ibaraki Prefecture, Kyodo reported.
The United States Food and Drug Administration said on Tuesday that it would prohibit imports of dairy goods and produce from the affected region.
The spread of a small amount of radiation is inevitable, considering the steam that is generated as emergency workers spray water on damaged reactors and cooling pools at the Fukushima complex. Government and company officials were nonetheless expressing growing optimism that the crisis was closer to being brought under control.
Of the six reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi facility only two, the No. 5 and No. 6 units, are currently considered to be under control. They, along with No. 4, were offline before the quake and while they have pools of spent fuel rods, like the other reactors, they have been of less concern.
All of the facilities have electrical power, a crucial step toward getting cooling systems restarted.
Officials said earlier Wednesday that they hoped to have the cooling pumps at the No. 3 and No. 4 units operating by as early as Thursday. They had been planning to test Reactor No. 3’s cooling system later Wednesday. That reactor is considered one of the most dangerous because of its fuel — mixed oxides, or mox, which contains a mixture of uranium and plutonium and can produce a more dangerous radioactive plume if scattered by fire or explosions.
But the effort was set back when the No. 3 facility began belching black smoke late in the afternoon, leading the plant operator, Tokyo Electric Power Company, to evacuate workers from the area. No flames were visible and the cause of the smoke was unknown, the company said.
Water also was sprayed on the No. 1 and No. 2 units on Wednesday.
Rebuilding after the 9.0-magnitude quake and tsunami, which ravaged the northeastern coast of the main Japanese island of Honshu, will cost up to $309 billion, Mr. Kan’s office said on Wednesday.
The economic cost of the disaster has hit the power company, also called Tepco, which is in negotiations with its bankers for loans of as much as about $24 billion, according to a person with direct knowledge of the situation who asked not to be identified.
Japan’s three megabanks — Sumitomo Mitsui, Tokyo Mitsubishi UFJ and Mizuho — and a number of second-tier banks were discussing the company’s needs, according to the person. There has been no talk of government guarantees for any such loans, said the person, who was not authorized to discuss the issue.
Additional loans will raise new questions about Tepco’s long-term financial health. The disaster led Moody’s Japan to cut Tepco’s debt rating to A1 from Aa2 and warn that further downgrades were possible. The Fukushima Daiichi station, which only a few weeks ago was listed on the balance sheet as an asset worth billions of dollars, may have to be largely written off.
“Our concern right now is not about whether we’ll be paid back,” the person said. “The important thing is to support the company.”
The broadcaster NHK reported on Wednesday that the official death toll from the disaster had been raised to more than 9,400 with more than 14,700 people missing, although officials said there could be overlap between the figures.
Meanwhile, strong earthquakes hit the northeast coast on Wednesday. A 6.0-magnitude quake shook Fukushima Prefecture in the morning, according to the Japanese Meteorological Agency. That was followed by a 5.8-magnitude tremor about 20 minutes later.
Scientists have warned of aftershocks from the March 11 quake continuing for weeks, possibly months. The meteorological agency said the frequency of the aftershocks was declining but warned of the possibility that tremors of magnitude 7.0 or higher could occur.
David Jolly reported from Tokyo, and Kevin Drew from Hong Kong.

HOLI IN NEW YORK : EAT, PRAY AND SMEAR

[In India, Holi festivities often include drinks laced with bhang (cannabis indica), but in the United States, “we stick to bourbon,” said one woman, who would not give her name because, she said, Hindu women traditionally do not drink alcohol, even on Phagwah.]

By JULIA MOSKIN
ON Sunday, Julie Ji got up early at her home in Richmond Hill, Queens, to make cook-up rice. The day began bright and quiet as she washed black-eyed peas and sliced mackerel for the dish, with no hint of the wild party to come.
By 1 p.m., the huge pot was simmering away, and 125th Street had erupted with music and color, as thousands of people streamed by her house celebrating Phagwah, the Hindu holiday (called Holi in India) that greets spring’s arrival.
Ms. Ji’s husband, Ram Shyam, and his friends bounced with excitement on the sidewalk, their hands full of colored powder used for greeting friends and strangers, smearing stripes of pink, green and purple on anyone who offered a smile or a traditional greeting of “Holi hai!”
Like the couple, thousands of Indian-Americans live in the neighborhood, where Hindu prayer flags flutter in front yards littered with cricket bats. Most trace their family histories to Trinidad or Guyana, where Phagwah (PAHG-wah) is a national holiday as much as a religious one.
In Queens the celebration has become a glittering pageant of Indo-Caribbean identity, with drum groups; floats sponsored by restaurants, radio stations and temples; and the annual crowning of Miss Phagwah. Sunday, after observant Hindus went to temple, the community converged on the parade down Liberty Avenue and the after-party in Phil Rizzuto Park, where the pounding from dholak drums mixed with bhangra, reggaet├│n and calypso music. Clouds of red, pink and white powder streamed in the wind, teenage boys sprayed squealing girls with purple dye, and even decorous elderly ladies, clad in white, decorated one another’s hair with color.
Phagwah commemorates the escape of the prince Prahlada from the burning lap of the demoness Holika. (Prahlada went on to become a wise king, devoted to Vishnu.) But as with other spring festivals like Easter and Purim, Phagwah is also a day to celebrate color and chaos, marking the end of winter’s gray and the earth’s revival.
Last week, shops that normally sell saris and hair products stocked powdered dyes in pink, purple, saffron and red (as well as Guyanese and Trinidadian flags). Bakeries stockpiled sweets.
In India, Holi festivities often include drinks laced with bhang (cannabis indica), but in the United States, “we stick to bourbon,” said one woman, who would not give her name because, she said, Hindu women traditionally do not drink alcohol, even on Phagwah.
After the tale of Prahlada was acted out at the park by a group of relatively dignified teenagers, Harry and Bibi Arjun set out tables in their yard nearby to hand out rice, chickpea curry, stewed spinach and pumpkin mashed with sugar, a Phagwah tradition, to passers-by.
“Everybody plays Phagwah in Guyana,” said Sandra Jeet, a manager at Sybil’s Bakery and Restaurant, a popular Guyanese spot at the beginning of the parade route.
Ms. Jeet’s family history reflects Guyana’s. Her father was a Vietnamese intellectual who was arrested by the French and sent to Devil’s Island, the penal colony off French Guiana. After the prison was closed in the 1950s, he settled in British Guiana (now Guyana) and married a Guyanese woman whose family came from India. Like many Guyanese of Indian descent, her family left after independence was declared in 1966 and tensions rose among the African, Indian and native Amerindian communities.
Shelly Kistnan, a radiology student, does not know where her grandfather lived in India before moving to Guyana to work in British-owned sugar cane fields. But she keeps her ties to her homeland alive in the kitchen.
She grew up south of Georgetown, Guyana’s capital, gathering firewood for the outdoor stove where she learned to cook from her mother. Now she makes Indian food like roti (flatbread), channa (chickpeas) and kheer (milky rice pudding) with an expert hand, toasting and grinding her own spices.
For Phagwah, she uses a kadhai, an all-purpose domed pot like a Chinese wok, to deep-fry a batter of ripe bananas, flour and sugar into plump bites called gogola. The batter is scented with mixed essence, a popular Caribbean flavoring with notes of vanilla, almond and cinnamon. According to Ramin Ganeshram, author of “Sweet Hands: Island Cooking From Trinidad and Tobago,” mixed essence is a pallid copy of the perfume of the South American tonka bean, which is rare and expensive (and illegal to use as a flavoring in the United States because it contains a chemical the Food and Drug Administration considers dangerous).
Ms. Jeet’s boss at Sybil’s, Viburt Bernard, is a son of Sybil Bernard-Kerrutt, who opened a modest Guyanese restaurant in Queens in 1976. Sybil’s now has three branches in the city, including one in Brooklyn, where Guyanese immigrants of African descent have settled.
His family converted to Christianity in Guyana, but Phagwah is still the biggest day of the year for him. “It’s like a family reunion,” he said.
At the restaurant, everything is made from scratch, like triangular tarts filled with pineapple jam, Chinese-style lo mein with long beans and black pudding flavored with tiny round, red-hot peppers called wiri-wiri. (Black pudding is British; the name “wiri-wiri” is probably Afro-Portuguese.) Sybil’s has delicious cook-up rice, a filling jumble of rice, beans, protein and spice that is one of the national dishes of Guyana.
Along with Sybil’s (132-17 Liberty Avenue; 718-835-9235), Liberty Avenue is lined with places that serve the exuberant combination of Caribbean, Indian, Chinese, Dutch, British and Portuguese that make up Indian-Caribbean food. There is Singh’s Roti Shop (131-18 Liberty Avenue; 718-323-5990, singhsrotishopnyc.com); Three Sisters Liberty Bakery (107-04 Liberty Avenue; 718-845-3570), which makes the best tennis rolls and mithai, sugary puffs flavored with aniseed; and ‘D’ Original A&A Restaurant (120-09 Liberty Avenue; 718-659-7400), which has the best local version of doubles, a Trinidadian snack of curried chickpeas rolled in a lightly sweet, tender flatbread.
All of them were doing a rousing business on Sunday. Last year Singh’s was so crowded after Phagwah that the police shut the place down at 6 p.m., said the owner, Adesh Harryginsingh.
“After they play Phagwah,” he said, “everyone has to eat.”