The Fukushima nuclear disaster and the Tokyo Olympics
Image credit: Getty Images
Before Covid-19 forced a delay, Japan’s government saw the ‘Recovery Olympics’ as a way to show the Fukushima nuclear disaster was under control. 10 years on, critics say many issues remain unresolved.
Members of the Japan women’s soccer team began the Olympic torch relay on 25 March this year, kicking off a four-month countdown to the Tokyo Summer Games after a year-long delay due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The brief opening ceremony – closed to the public and attended only by a small number of dignitaries – took place on a football pitch in J-Village. The sports complex lies just 20km south of Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, where a devastating earthquake and subsequent tsunami killed more than 18,000 people and triggered a triple nuclear meltdown in 2011. J-Village was used as a base for the thousands of clean-up workers tasked with decommissioning the plant.
Long before the pandemic forced Japan to delay the Games, then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe pegged the sporting mega-event as a way to show that Japan had overcome the disaster and to promote reconstruction efforts in the region. Ten years on, questions over radiation in the area, its prospects for recovery, and the decommissioning of the reactor, as well as Japan’s overall energy policy, remain.
Abe’s successor Yoshihide Suga has said the Games would also be a sign of overcoming another tragedy. Going ahead with the event would be “proof that humanity has defeated the pandemic”, he said last year. But here, too, not everyone agrees. With less than two months to go until the official start of the Olympics, the Japanese government has recently extended its state of emergency in Tokyo and several other prefectures until at least 20 June. While the number of new Covid-19 infections has been going down and cases remain relatively low in an international comparison, a stretched-out fourth wave has strained the country’s medical sector.
Meanwhile, Japan’s vaccination efforts have been significantly lagging behind other developed nations. Less than 3 per cent of the population have been fully vaccinated as of 27 May 2021 and polls show that most of the public wants the Games cancelled. Despite that, Suga has been iterating his commitment to hold the Olympics in Tokyo this summer.
To assure members of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) that the event in Tokyo would be safe, then-Prime Minister Abe promised in his 2013 pitch to host the 2020 Games that the situation at the destroyed Fukushima nuclear plant was “under control”.
Three years later, Junichiro Koizumi, a former prime minister and fellow member of Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party, called this promise a lie. “I think Abe understands the arguments on both sides of the debate, but he has chosen to believe the pro-nuclear lobby,” Koizumi, who became an outspoken critic of nuclear energy following the catastrophe, said at a press conference in Tokyo in September 2016.
“There was a very clear political agenda by Shinzo Abe, to use the Olympics to rehabilitate the impression of both Fukushima and the nuclear disaster domestically and globally,” says Sean Burnie, a senior nuclear specialist for Greenpeace East Asia, who has surveyed radiation in Fukushima dozens of times since the nuclear meltdowns happened.
Following the disaster, Japan halted all its nuclear reactors. Since then, it has restarted only nine out of a possible 42 across five power plants, while more than 20 are set to be decommissioned. Before the 2011 disaster, Japan generated about a third of its energy from nuclear power, and there were plans to increase that to around 40 per cent. The Japanese government’s current energy policy plans for 30 to 35 reactors operating by 2030, meaning about 20 per cent of the country’s power would come from nuclear energy. That target is also part of the government’s plan to significantly reduce carbon emissions in the country by the end of the next decade. This target requires at least a further 21 reactors to be back online.
One of the major obstacles to those restarts is public opinion, says Burnie. “The perception of Fukushima is that because you have an accident, you can’t rehabilitate, you can’t bring people back to live there, it’s not safe, and the decommissioning of the plant will take many, many decades, or centuries longer,” he adds. “So trying to create a new image, a new perception of Fukushima on the nuclear issue is really important [to the Japanese government].”
Changing public perception played a significant role in the government’s decision to host events in Fukushima and to use the framework of the ‘Recovery Olympics’, Burnie says, adding that the desire of the prefectural government and general society in Fukushima to communicate their region’s recovery was also a factor. “I think it creates a sense of slight schizophrenia because people want to have some good news ... the Olympics were seen as perhaps a positive.”
At the same time, there was widespread criticism because the significant investments into the Olympics were seen as taking resources away that could have gone towards the area’s general reconstruction. The entire cost of hosting the 2020 Games is projected to be more than $15bn (£10.6bn), including $2.8bn for the postponement and an estimated $900m for measures to curb the spread of Covid-19. The Tokyo Games are the most expensive to date, according to a 2020 University of Oxford study that looked at Olympic costs since 1960. “There are still tens of thousands of people displaced, people still living in emergency housing. Obviously, the whole radiological situation is still complex and hazardous. There were mixed feelings about it,” Burnie says.
A year ago, when international visitors to the Games were still considered a possibility, some questioned whether it was safe for athletes and spectators to visit sporting venues in Fukushima or even Japan in general. South Korea reportedly considered providing its own food for athletes out of radiation concerns, although the move was seen as political by some.
Levels of radiation in Japan have decreased thanks in part to a massive programme by the government to remove the top layer of soil in affected areas. The contaminated soil is stored in millions of black one-cubic-metre bags that are piled up on temporary open-air areas scattered across the prefecture before being transported to interim storage sites. As of April 2020, about 6.7 million of the black bags were still stored in Fukushima, according to the Ministry of Environment.
While the plant’s operator managed to stabilise the damaged reactors at Fukushima Daiichi, melted nuclear fuel buried deep into the ground below the plant is still to be located and removed – an endeavour that is projected to take at least four more decades. Meanwhile, in April, the government approved plans to gradually release more than one million tonnes of contaminated water into the sea.
A 2013 health risk assessment by the World Health Organization concluded that the lifetime risk for some cancers may be “somewhat elevated” for some groups in the most affected areas, but that there was no discernible risk increase outside those regions or abroad. The United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) echoed these findings in a report published in March 2021. “Since the UNSCEAR 2013 Report, no adverse health effects among Fukushima residents have been documented that could be directly attributed to radiation exposure from the accident,” said UNSCEAR chair Gillian Hirth, according to a press release, referencing findings from an earlier report.
The authors said a large increase in cases of thyroid cancer among children wasn’t the result of radiation exposure, but the result of ultra-sensitive screening procedures revealing thyroid abnormalities in the population that hadn’t been detected before.
Nevertheless, at the end of 2019 Greenpeace conducted radiation measurements around J-Village, where the Olympic torch relay would later kick off, and found several hotspots. The radiation levels were as high as 71 microsieverts per hour at surface level, 1,775 times higher than measurements before the Fukushima disaster, the environmental group said. The Japanese Ministry of Environment confirmed the existence of hotspots in its own separate measurements after Greenpeace released its report, but said measures were taken to reduce radiation in the affected areas and that levels were now lower. Greenpeace said, however, that later readings showed that radiation remained high even after Tokyo Electric Power Company, the company that had operated the Fukushima Daiichi plant, decontaminated the areas in question.
Greenpeace has been conducting radiation surveys in Fukushima since March 2011, says nuclear specialist Burnie. “We’ve done a lot of survey work in Chernobyl, in other parts of Russia, the US, Europe, Asia, Africa... and so, we used a lot of that experience over the last 30 to 40 years to do the survey work in Fukushima,” he explains.
Since the disaster struck, the environmental group has surveyed the area for radiation 32 times, the last being in November 2020. “In 2019, we were obviously aware that two sporting events and the torch route were to be hosted in Fukushima Prefecture itself,” Burnie says, adding that the group looked at the sports venue in Fukushima city as well as J-Village.
Azby Brown, a lead researcher for Safecast, a non-profit organisation providing radiation measurements and other environmental data, says: “This place was supposed to be perfectly clean. This was a high-visibility, high-priority place for the Olympics. And still, there were hotspots.” The contamination in J-Village is an example of why it is so crucial for third parties to provide regular monitoring, he adds.
Safecast was founded shortly after the Fukushima disaster when there was a need for up-to-date, reliable information on radiation levels in Japan, which was mostly unavailable to the public at that time. In the days after the accident, “we were trying to find sources of information and the wind direction. This information was just very hard to find,” Brown explains. “A couple of days later, there was a group on Facebook called ‘Tokyo Radiation Levels’. And one person had a Geiger counter, and he would go, every day, outside on his balcony and take a photo of the measurement and put it on Facebook.”
Shortly after the disaster, it was nearly impossible for people in the affected areas to buy Geiger counters because they were sold out globally, Brown said. Faced with that situation, the group built and developed its own Geiger counters with GPS and mapping capability, called ‘bGeigies’. Like other SafeCast devices, they could be built with more readily available components and at a lower cost than commercially available devices at the time. Later, the system was updated and redesigned to be easier to build and transport, resulting in the ‘bGeigie Nano’.
“Our attitude at Safecast has been that people need to be able to decide for themselves, so they need to have the information for themselves,” says Brown. “If you need to depend on the Japanese government to tell you, well, there’s a lot of problems with that. It’s difficult to trust the data,” he adds. Nevertheless, after Safecast had collected enough data and the Japanese government provided sufficient information to compare the measurements, the group found they mostly matched, he says.
In a recent text published on Safecast’s website, Brown wrote that the group’s measurements show “short-term visitors to Fukushima will almost certainly get a higher radiation dose on their flights to Japan than they will by spending several days in Fukushima”. Still, he wrote, exposure to cosmic radiation from long-distance flights and in Fukushima is difficult to compare. People in Fukushima also face the risk, though low, of ingesting radioactive material with their food, he added.
Another recent study, published in Environmental Engineering Science in February, partially relied on data collected by citizen groups such as Safecast looking at radioactive isotopes measured at Olympic and Paralympic venues in Fukushima. The scientists collected 146 independent soil and dust samples from sites in Fukushima Prefecture, the Greater Tokyo Area and the corridors between. The study included 36 samples from 2020 Olympic and Paralympic venues, including Yoyogi National Stadium, Shiokaze Park, the Olympic Village, the Imperial Palace Gardens in Tokyo, Azuma Stadium in Fukushima, and J-Village.
The authors, Marco Paul Johann Kaltofen, Arnie Gundersen and Maggie Gundersen, said the Greater Tokyo Olympic venues had radiation activities like a control set of measurements from the US, implying little or no public health risk in comparison.
However, “Azuma Park, the Fukushima Baseball venue, was (on average) 1.6 times higher in beta activity than Greater Tokyo venues. The J-Village National Training Centre had the highest net beta activity value for the Olympic set. J-Village displayed on average 2.4 times greater beta activities than Tokyo venues and had a single low-level but confirmed plutonium-239 detection in one soil sample,” they wrote in the study.
According to their research, the overall sample set showed beta activity that was – on average – seven times higher than the Tokyo Olympic venues, showing “the relative success of remediation at Olympic/Paralympic venues compared with other parts of Japan”.
Nevertheless, the scientists noted in their study that there was evidence that previously decontaminated rooftops in Minamisoma, one of the cities most heavily affected by the nuclear disaster, had been re-contaminated by airborne atmospheric dust containing radionuclides that most likely stemmed from the Fukushima meltdowns. “The data show a need for continuing reassessment and potentially, additional remedial work on many sites in Fukushima Prefecture,” they concluded.
Evaluating radiation risk is highly dependent on location and personal preferences, Safecast’s Brown says, adding that people have different ideas about how much risk or uncertainty they are willing to accept. “I could live in lots of parts of Fukushima that are open. I have no qualms about eating the food, I know how it’s being tested, I know the people who are growing the food or the fishermen who are catching the fish and that they measure very carefully,” he says. He considers the Japanese government’s safety limit of 100 becquerels per kilogram of caesium for regular food items as adequately safe. “But you know, lots of people don’t. They’re within their rights to say we don’t think that’s safe enough,” he adds.
For the people living in the areas of Fukushima impacted by the nuclear disaster, the catastrophic event is still a daily presence in their lives. “It’s not like, you can go blithely, and with no care in the world, and just live the way you normally live. Going and visiting or living in Fukushima means constantly being aware that there could be a risk,” Brown says. Radiation monitors on streets and highways and worries about food contamination are constant reminders to the population, he adds.
“It’s hard for me to support the idea of using the Olympics to present a narrative of recovery, where so much recovery remains to be done.”
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