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The Fukushima Nuclear Disaster and the Tokyo Olympics

Before Covid-19 forced a delay, the Japanese government saw the Recovery Olympics as a way to show that the Fukushima nuclear disaster was under control. Ten years later, critics say many problems remain unsolved.

Members of Japan’s women’s soccer team began the Olympic torch relay on March 25 this year, beginning the four-month countdown to the Tokyo Summer Games after a one-year delay due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

The short opening ceremony – closed to the public and attended by only a small number of dignitaries – took place on a football field in J-Village.

The sports complex is located just 20 km south of Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, where a devastating earthquake and subsequent tsunami killed more than 18,000 people and caused a triple meltdown in 2011.

J-Village was used as a base for the thousands of clean workers in charge of dismantling the plant.

Long before the pandemic forced Japan to postpone the Games, then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe cited the mega-sporting event as a way to show Japan had overcome the disaster and help rebuild the region.

Ten years later, questions remain about radiation in the area, prospects for recovery and decommissioning of the reactor, as well as Japan’s overall energy policy.

Abe’s successor Yoshihide Suga has said the Games would also be a sign of overcoming another tragedy. Continuing with the event would be “proof that humanity has beaten the pandemic,” he said last year.

But not everyone agrees with this either. With less than two months to go until the official start of the Olympics, the Japanese government recently extended a state of emergency in Tokyo and several other prefectures until at least June 20.

While the number of new Covid-19 infections has fallen and cases remain relatively low in an international comparison, a drawn-out fourth wave has put pressure on the country’s medical sector.

Meanwhile, Japan’s vaccination efforts have lagged significantly behind other developed countries.

Less than 3 percent of the population will be fully vaccinated by May 27, 2021, and polls show most of the public wants the Games cancelled. Despite this, Suga reiterates its commitment to hold the Tokyo Olympics this summer.

To assure members of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) that the Tokyo event would be safe, then Prime Minister Abe in his 2013 pitch to host the 2020 Games promised that the situation at the destroyed Fukushima nuclear power plant would be “under control.” ” used to be.

Three years later, Junichiro Koizumi, a former prime minister and fellow member of Abe’s Liberal Democrat 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 power after the disaster, told a news conference in Tokyo.

September. 2016. “There was a very clear political agenda from Shinzo Abe, to use the Olympics to recreate the impression of both Fukushima and the nuclear disaster at home and abroad,” said Sean Burnie, a senior nuclear specialist for Greenpeace East.

Asia, which has examined radiation at Fukushima dozens of times since the meltdown. After the disaster, Japan shut down all its nuclear reactors. Since then, it has restarted only nine of a possible 42 in five power plants, with more than 20 expected to be decommissioned.

Before the disaster in 2011, Japan generated about a third of its energy from nuclear power, and there were plans to increase that to about 40 percent.

The Japanese government’s current energy policy plans for 30 to 35 reactors to be in operation by 2030, meaning about 20 percent of the country’s power would come from nuclear power.

That target is also part of the government’s plan to significantly reduce CO2 emissions in the country by the end of the next decade. To achieve this goal, at least another 21 reactors must be back online. One of the biggest obstacles to that reboot is public opinion, Burnie says.

“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 dismantling of the factory will take many, many decades or centuries longer.

“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 major role in the government’s decision to host events in Fukushima and use the “Recovery Olympic Games” framework, Burnie says, adding that the desire of the prefecture and general society in Fukushima to communicate the recovery of their region was also a factor.

“I think it creates a feeling of mild schizophrenia because people want to have good news … the Olympics may have been seen as positive.

” At the same time, there was widespread criticism that the significant investment in the Olympics was seen as taking away resources that could have been used for the overall reconstruction of the area.

The full cost of hosting the 2020 Games is expected to exceed $15 billion (£10.6 billion), including $2.8 billion for the postponement and an estimated $900 million for measures to stem the spread of Covid -19 to contain.

The Tokyo Games are the most expensive to date, according to a 2020 study by the University of Oxford that looked at the Olympic costs since 1960. “Tens of thousands of people are still displaced, people are still living in emergency housing.

It is clear that the whole radiological situation is still complex and dangerous. 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 sports venues in Fukushima or even Japan in general.

South Korea reportedly considered providing its own food for athletes over radiation concerns, though the move was seen as political by some. Radiation levels in Japan have fallen, thanks in part to a massive government program to remove the top layer of soil in the affected areas.

The contaminated soil is stored in millions of one-cubic-meter black bags that are piled up in temporary open-air areas across the prefecture before being transported to temporary storage sites.

According to the Ministry of the Environment, about 6.7 million black bags were still stored in Fukushima in April 2020. While the plant’s operator managed to stabilize the damaged reactors at Fukushima Daiichi, molten nuclear fuel buried deep in the ground beneath the plant has yet to be located and removed — an effort expected to take at least another four decades.

Meanwhile, in April, the government approved plans to gradually discharge more than a million tons 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 “slightly elevated” for some groups in the most affected areas, but there was no observable increase in risk outside those regions or abroad.

The United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) reiterated these findings in a report published in March 2021.

“Since the UNSCEAR 2013 report, there have been no documented adverse health effects in Fukushima residents that can be directly attributed to radiation exposure from the accident,” UNSCEAR Chair Gillian Hirth said, according to a press release, citing findings from an earlier report.

The authors said a large increase in childhood thyroid cancer cases was not the result of radiation exposure, but the result of ultra-sensitive screening procedures that revealed thyroid abnormalities in the population that had not been previously detected.

Still, at the end of 2019, Greenpeace took radiation measurements around J-Village, where the Olympic torch relay would later start, and found several hotspots Radiation levels were as high as 71 microsieverts per hour at the surface, 1,775 times higher than measurements before the Fukushima disaster, the environmental group said.

Japan’s environment ministry confirmed the.existence of hotspots in its own separate readings after Greenpeace released its report, but said measures had been taken to reduce radiation in the affected areas and levels were now lower.

However, Greenpeace said later measurements showed that radiation levels remained high even after Tokyo Electric Power Company, the company that had operated the Fukushima Daiichi plant, cleaned up the affected areas.

Greenpeace has been conducting radiation studies in Fukushima since March 2011, says nuclear specialist Burnie.

“We’ve done a lot of research work in Chernobyl, in other parts of Russia, the US, Europe, Asia, Africa… so we’ve used a lot of that experience over the past 30 to 40 years to guide the surveying work in Fukushima,” explains he out.

Since the disaster struck, the environmental group has examined the area for radiation 32 times, the last time in November 2020.

“In 2019, of course, we knew that two sporting events and the flare route would be hosted in Fukushima prefecture itself,” Burnie says, adding that the group looked at both the Fukushima city sports venue and J-Village.

Azby Brown, a principal investigator for Safecast, a nonprofit that provides radiation measurements and other environmental data, says, “This place had to be perfectly clean. This was a highly visible, high-priority place for the Olympics. And yet there were hot spots.

” The contamination in J-Village is an example of why it is so crucial that third parties monitor regularly, he adds.Safecast was founded shortly after the Fukushima disaster, when there was a need for up-to-date, reliable information about radiation levels in Japan, which was largely unavailable to the public at the time.

In the days following the accident, “we were trying to find sources of information and the wind direction. This information was just really hard to find,” explains Brown. group on Facebook called “Tokyo Radiation Levels.

” And one person had a Geiger counter, and he went out on his balcony every day and took a picture of the reading and posted it on Facebook.

” Shortly after the disaster, it was nearly impossible for people in the affected areas to buy Geiger counters because they sold out worldwide, Brown said.

Faced with the situation, the group built and developed its own Geiger counters with GPS and mapping capabilities, called “bGeigies.” like other SafeCast devices, they can be built with more readily available components and at a lower cost than commercially available devices at the time.

The system was later updated and redesigned to be easier to build and transport, resulting in the ‘bGeigie Nano.” Our attitude at Safecast was that people should be able to decide for themselves, so they should have the information for themselves,” says Brown.

“If you have to rely on the Japanese government to tell you that, well, there are many It’s hard to trust the data,” he adds. Nevertheless, after Safecast collected enough data and the Japanese government provided enough information to compare the measurements, the group found they largely matched, he says.

In a recent text published on Safecast’s website, Brown wrote that the group’s measurements show that “short-term visitors to Fukushima will almost certainly receive a higher radiation dose on their flights to Japan than if they were in Fukushima for several days.

” Spending time”. Still, he wrote, exposure to cosmic rays from long-haul flights and in Fukushima is difficult to compare. People in Fukushima are also at risk, though small, of ingesting radioactive material with their food, he added.

Another recent study, published in Environmental Engineering Science in February, was based in part on data collected by citizen groups like 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 them.

The study included 36 samples from Olympic and Paralympic venues in 2020, 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, posing little or no risk to public health by comparison.

However, “Azuma Park, the Fukushima Baseball location, was (on average) 1.6 times higher in beta activity than Greater Tokyo locations. The J-Village National Training Center had the highest net beta activity value for the Olympic set.

J-Village exhibited an average of 2.4 times more beta activity than Tokyo sites and had a single low but confirmed plutonium-239 detection in one soil sample,” they wrote in the study.

According to their research, the total sample set showed beta activity that averaged seven times that of the Tokyo Olympic sites, demonstrating “the relative success of remediation at Olympic/Paralympic sites compared to other parts of Japan.”

Nevertheless, in their study, the scientists noted that there was evidence that previously decontaminated roofs in Minamisoma, one of the cities hardest hit by the nuclear disaster, had been recontaminated by atmospheric dust in the air containing radionuclides most likely from the meltdown of Fukushima.

“The data shows that there is a need for ongoing reassessment and potentially additional remediation in many locations in Fukushima Prefecture,” they concluded.

Evaluating radiation risk is highly dependent on location and personal preferences, says Brown of Safecast, adding that people have different ideas about how much risk or uncertainty they are willing to accept.

“I could live in many open areas of Fukushima. I have no problem eating the food, I know how it is tested, I know the people who grow the food or the fishermen who catch the fish and they measure it very accurately,” he says.

He considers the Japanese government’s safety limit of 100 becquerels per kilogram of cesium for regular foods to be sufficiently safe. “But you know, a lot of people don’t. They have a right to say we don’t think that’s safe enough,” he added.

For the people living in the nuclear disaster-stricken areas of Fukushima, the catastrophic event is still a daily occurrence in their lives. “It’s not that you can go carefree, and without any care in the world, and just live as you normally live.

Visiting or living in Fukushima means constantly being aware that there may be a risk,” Brown says. Radiation monitors on streets and highways and concerns about food contamination are a constant reminder to the population, he adds.

“It’s hard for me to support the idea of ​​using the Olympics to present a story of recovery, where so much recovery remains to be done.”