Discontent over Fukushima nuclear disaster response casts shadow over Tokyo Olympics

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(NEW YORK) — Some 150 miles from Tokyo’s Olympic venues, calendars that line the walls of empty classrooms remain frozen on a date more than a decade in the past: March 11, 2011.

Images from an abandoned elementary school in Futaba, Japan, are an eerie reminder of the uneven recovery efforts 10 years after a 9.0-magnitude earthquake triggered a catastrophic tsunami and caused the world’s worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl.

About 164,000 people were forced to evacuate in the aftermath of the meltdown at the now-infamous Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant. Many never returned home.

As the Japanese government doggedly forges ahead with the delayed and beleaguered Olympic Games this year, some advocates say initial promises that the situation in Fukushima is “under control” are false. Some also say the “Recovery Olympics” branding exploits residents who feel forgotten, and cleanup of the Dai-ichi power plant will take decades longer than government estimates.

Japanese officials insist radiation levels in reopened parts of Fukushima prefecture — which is set to host baseball and softball for the Summer Games — are safe for visitors, and many independent monitors agree. But what many say is a lack of transparency has eroded public trust, and a new debate rages over the what to do with the more than 1 million tons of “treated” radioactive wastewater piling up in storage tanks at the damaged nuclear power plant.

Here is how the legacy of the Fukushima nuclear catastrophe looms large over the Tokyo Olympics.

A ‘Made in Japan’ disaster

Kiyoshi Kurokawa, the chairman of the Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission (a group mandated by Japanese legislators to examine what went wrong and make recommendations), told ABC News that recovery efforts are far from complete and a permanent plan for how to dispose of contaminated waste is not in place.

“It has a long way to go,” Kurokawa told ABC News of Fukushima’s recovery. “It’s a very tragic thing — and there are just certain people that cannot go back.”

“The issue is, what is the long-term prospectus of how to contain Fukushima Dai-ichi, and I’m not so sure TEPCO [Tokyo Electric Power Company] has a clear long-term plan of what to do,” Kurokawa added. “They’re doing at least their best effort, but I think cleaning up radioactivity is a mess, and particularly with Fukushima Dai-ichi’s issues.”

While the quasi-state-owned power firm that runs the embattled nuclear power plant has suggested a 30- to 40-year timeline for decommissioning, Kurokawa said conflicting research estimates it could take at least “100 years.”

In his team’s scathing report on what went wrong, delivered to Japanese lawmakers in the aftermath of the event, Kurokawa calls the nuclear catastrophe a “profoundly manmade disaster — that could and should have been foreseen and prevented.”

Kurokawa blasted cultural factors in the nation with the world’s third-largest gross domestic product that he says ultimately resulted in more suffering.

“What must be admitted — very painfully — is that this was a disaster ‘Made in Japan,'” Kurokawa wrote in the English version of the executive summary. “Its fundamental causes are to be found in the ingrained conventions of Japanese culture: our reflexive obedience; our reluctance to question authority; our devotion to ‘sticking with the program’; our groupism; and our insularity.”

While they are separate issues, similar criticisms have been leveled at Japanese officials still insistent upon hosting the Olympics despite a global pandemic.

“The biggest issue from our point of view has been this historical lack of adequate transparency on the part of TEPCO and also the Japanese government,” Azby Brown, a researcher for the nuclear monitoring nonprofit organization Safecast, told ABC News, “and this is from the beginning and may actually predate the accident.”

“We see some similar things happening regarding the coronavirus response and even among the negotiations or the discussions regarding the Olympics and what measures will be taken to protect the safety of people who come here for that,” Brown added. “So, it’s all part of a similar phenomenon within Japanese institutions and bureaucracies and government.”

‘Recovery is far from reality’ ahead of so-called ‘Recovery Olympics’

Before the COVID-19 pandemic engulfed the world, the Japanese government originally painted the 2020 Olympic Games as the “Recovery Olympics,” meant to showcase how the nation rebuilt in the decade following the cataclysmic triple disaster of 2011.

The global health crisis and mounting costs associated with hosting the international event during a once-in-a-century pandemic has led to dwindling public support for holding the games, but these concerns appear to have largely fallen on deaf ears. Many locals have expressed fears that it could lead to a surge in coronavirus cases as vaccination rates in Japan lag far behind its peers in the developed world.

For some residents or evacuees of Fukushima, however, hosting the Olympics at a cost of some $12.6 billion is a painful reminder of government-spending priorities.

“Some people feel abandoned not only by the government but also by the nation,” Kazuya Hirano, a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, told ABC News. “They also feel used for the promotion of the government slogan, the ‘Recovery Olympics.'”

Hirano — whose research has focused on the continued social, political and health effects of the disaster — said that the government terminated financial support for evacuees in 2017, but most have not returned home.

“Reconstruction does not make much sense as most former Fukushima residents who were affected by the disaster have not returned or have no intention to return because they are worried about the radiation for their families as well as themselves,” Hirano said. “Most people have already settled in new places.”

Safecast’s Brown said that he feels some people in the region take pride in hosting Olympic events, as it provides something to be optimistic about.

“But for them to try to use this as a way to showcase recovery, it was a sketchy idea from the beginning and I think now it’s probably certainly backfired,” he said. “Instead, it will only highlight the problems and the lack of recovery.”

“We spend a lot of time with people in communities we help,” Brown said. “They’re all totally skeptical of these big-picture things, like to spend millions and millions on Olympics. They are saying we need more support for concrete things — actual support for small businesses, actual support for single parents.”

With “real, concrete things” still not adequately taken care of in Fukushima, Brown said many residents view the billions of dollars pumped into the Olympics as “just misspent funds.”

In his 2013 speech pitching Tokyo as a host city, then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told members of the International Olympic Committee that the situation in Fukushima is “under control” and “has never done and will never do any damage to Tokyo.”

His words have drawn ire from Fukushima residents for years.

In July 2020, Katsunobu Sakurai — who was mayor of Minamiosama, Fukushima, at the time of the catastrophe — blasted the “Recovery Olympics” branding in an interview with the one of the country’s biggest newspapers.

“No matter how much you tout the games as a sign of recovery, the overall picture of only Tokyo prospering while the recovery of the disaster-hit areas in the Tohoku region remains undone will not change,” he told the Mainichi newspaper, referring to the region that is home to Fukushima. “I’ve been to Tokyo many times, and saw that there were more crane trucks at the construction site of the athletes’ village than in the disaster-hit areas.”

“It was obvious at a glance where the national government was placing its resources,” he added.

How safe is the area now?

The Japanese government has been slowly lifting evacuation orders and “restricted areas” over the years, removing top soil and declaring new swaths of land safe for residents to return to in the lead up to the Summer Games. Currently, a vast majority of Fukushima is considered safe to visit — only about 230 square miles remain in designated evacuation zones, or 2.7% of the total area of Fukushima prefecture.

Fukushima’s Azuma Baseball stadium, about 42 miles from the Dai-ichi power plant, is set to host baseball and softball competitions for the Tokyo Olympics.

In a symbolic move, the Olympic torch relay kicked off at the J-Village National Training Center, a sports complex just 12 miles south of the Dai-ichi plant. The complex served as a front-line base for first responders in the aftermath of the meltdown.

“That place, the base of operations dealing with the nuclear accident, has now been reborn into Japan’s largest holy site of soccer, filled with children’s smiling faces,” Abe said of J-Village in a January 2020 speech. The former prime minister and fierce champion of hosting the games also reminisced how a man born in Hiroshima on the day the atomic bomb was dropped carried the Olympic flame in Tokyo’s 1964 Olympics, sending a message to the world that “Japan had achieved reconstruction” following World War II.

While the government has assured visitors the designated areas in Fukushima are safe, some independent monitoring organizations, including Greenpeace Japan, have reported finding radioactive hotspots with readings that don’t align with figures released by the officials.

Kurokawa and Brown agreed that the risk of dangerous levels of radiation exposure in reopened areas of Fukushima is low, but residents’ trust in official statements also remains low.

“More or less, I think it’s very clean and if there’s any sort of radioactivity, there are some warnings around there, so I think local people know where it is safe and where may not be as safe,” Kurokawa told ABC News. He added that he believes people can “reasonably trust” municipal radiation data even if they have doubts about TEPCO-released figures.

Brown added that barring intentionally scaling a fence and entering a prohibited zone, radiation in most areas welcoming Olympic guests is relatively low.

“Before coronavirus there was a question if it was safe to have Olympic events in Fukushima. We were involved in that and had people involved who measured at the stadium, talked to people,” Brown said. “Our opinion was that … the risk of an overseas visitor going to Fukushima was similar to the radiation risk they got on their flight over.”

“That is not an exaggeration and is not trying to minimize risk in general,” he added. “You get a very hefty dose on an overseas flight.”

‘Transparency is the foundation of trust’

Earlier this year, Japan’s government announced plans to start releasing “treated” radioactive wastewater from the Dai-ichi plant into the Pacific Ocean in approximately two years. The move had already been delayed due to protests, drawing ire from local fisherman as well as Japan’s neighbors in the Asia-Pacific region.

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said this decision is “unavoidable” in order to “make progress in the decommissioning of Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Plant and achieve the reconstruction of Fukushima.”

The wastewater has been stored in tanks at the wrecked power plant for years, and space is reaching full capacity, the prime minister added. As of January 2021, there were approximately 1,061 tanks on the site of the power plant, carrying 1.24 million tons of treated water. Suga said he doesn’t think the plan reflects a “contradiction” to Abe’s former pledge to Olympic officials that the Fukushima situation was “under control.”

The water has been treated, but still contains minute amounts of the harder-to-remove radioactive isotope tritium. In a failed bid to gain public support for the plan, the Japanese government created a rosy-cheeked so-called “Little Mr. Tritium” mascot. The cute character that looked like something out of a children’s book was scrapped from government websites in a single day after community backlash.

“The gap between the gravity of the problems we face and the levity of the character is huge,” a local fisherman told Japan’s Kyodo News Agency.

Suga promised they would reduce the tritium concentration to “one-fortieth or less of the domestic regulatory standard value,” or levels small enough to be largely considered safe by the nuclear energy community.

While nuclear operators around the world release small amounts of tritium into the ocean as part of standard operating procedures, Brown told ABC News that it’s a “false comparison to say that Fukushima Dai-ichi is the same.”

“What we’re dealing with is a stopgap emergency response to a horrific nuclear disaster,” he said, noting that the release is not being done as part of the designed operation of the plant.

“Another criticism of ours is that there should be a process, a full environmental impact assessment before the decision is made,” Brown said. While a limited assessment was carried out, he added, “It has not been done transparently.”

“We think that if it is done the way they said they are going to do it, then the impact on health and the environment can be very low,” he added. “But the point is there has been such bad faith all along that none of us should take it on their word. We believe it needs to be independently verified.”

Kurokawa added that while the tritium debate has dominated discussion, there’s evidence that there could be trace amounts of other radioactive elements in the wastewater destined for the Pacific.

“I just testified in the parliament, there are other sort of radioactivities in addition to tritium,” he said. “But nobody talks much about this.”

While he said he genuinely believes the levels are within accepted norms, it sill must be disclosed.

“It’s safe, but you have to say it,” he said.

Kurokawa is advocating for TEPCO and the Japanese government to invest in a highly transparent, bilingual website that is constantly being updated with the latest data and plans for Fukushima.

“I think all the data has to be available because in this connected world, transparency is a foundation of trust,” he said. “You just cannot hide it.”

The city of Minamiosama, where Sakurai was mayor, was among the hardest-hit by the disaster. Kurokawa and his team’s report found that 44% of evacuees from Fukushima were residents of this city. Data indicates that even after it was declared safe, it still suffered a mass exodus of its young people.

“The Japanese government has prepared for the Olympics while upholding the ‘disaster recovery’ label, even though a recovery is far from reality,” Sakurai said to the Mainichi newspaper in July 2020. “It is superficial to declare a recovery with no actual progress.”

“The government is now talking of an Olympics that could be a sign of humanity’s triumph over the pandemic, but vaccines have not yet been put into practical use, and the world has not yet been freed from the risk of infection,” he added. “There is no chance of success by trying to box in reality to meet the labels the government upholds. The idea of a ‘coronavirus Olympics’ may also likely end as a mere fantasy.”

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