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Radiation concerns overshadow Tokyo

Ahead of the Summer Games, independent readings remain high
Jan 13,2020
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While many are concerned about radiation at venues located north of Tokyo, some readings have shown high levels a few miles from the Olympic Stadium, above. [YONHAP]
The 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo is now just over six months away, but rather than excitement, there is growing apprehension regarding the radiation levels in Japan.

In the aftermath of the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, the Japanese Ministry of Environment has downplayed concerns regarding radiation in the country, but local civic groups and environmental organizations around the world still have their suspicions. Looking at the radiation levels of the sites where each sporting event will be held, it is understandable why so many are concerned.

The J-Village, which is the official training site of the Japanese women’s football team and where the torch relay will start on March 26, is located about 10 kilometers (6 miles) south of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. The Japanese women’s football team is scheduled to kick off the torch relay across the country.

Operated by Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco), the power plant suffered severe damage from the magnitude 9.0 earthquake and tsunami that struck in 2011. The damage to several reactors led to leaks of radiation, which is considered the biggest problem ahead of the Games.

When the environmental organization Greenpeace measured the radiation levels of a grassy area near the parking lot of the J-Village in October 2019, the measurement came out to be 71 microsieverts per hour (μSv/h) close the surface and 32 μSv/h at 10 centimeters (4 inches) above the surface, even though the Japanese Ministry of Environment has pledged to keep the reading to below 0.23 microsieverts per hour, according to a report released by the organization.

In the response to the report, the Japanese Ministry of Environment and Tepco moved fast to remove the soil around the hotspot uncovered by Greenpeace Japan.

Based on a Greenpeace report released in December, the organization returned to the J-Village to conduct tests once again and found that the levels at the specific location had dropped to lower than 1 μSv/h at 10 centimeters. However, on the same day just to the north of that hotspot, Greenpeace tested an area adjacent to the parking lot, where levels were up to 2.2 μSv/h at 10 centimeters. Near the entrance of this same parking lot, Greenpeace measured 2.6 μSv/h at 10 centimeters.

“Many questions and uncertainties remain: how were such high levels of radiation (71 μSv/h at close to surface) not detected during the earlier decontamination by Tepco? Why were only the most alarming hotspots removed and not the wider areas following the standard decontamination procedures?” asked Heinz Smital, nuclear physicist and radiation specialist at Greenpeace Germany.

After a request of the Japanese government, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) agreed to host some of the Olympic baseball and softball games at Fukushima Azuma Baseball Stadium, which is only 97 kilometers away from the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant.

The Miyagi Stadium, located in Miyazaki, is a football venue for the Games and is about 118 kilometers away from the power plant.

Since both sites are located relatively close to the site of the accident, many have expressed concerns, as football and baseball are expected to be some of the most popular events at the Olympics this summer.

Interestingly, there hasn’t been much data published regarding those two sites. But when the radiation levels are measured by the organization that takes care of Azuma Stadium every month, the number doesn’t go any higher than 0.2 μSv/h.

Once again, environmental organizations are suspicious. When Greenpeace measured the radiation levels at Namie, located 10 kilometers north of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, the radiation levels were as high as 100 times more than the international limit for public exposure. Although the contaminated soil has been removed, the levels still go up when it rains because the soil from the top of the forest runs down to the decontaminated area.

According to Greenpeace, since the Olympics will be held during the summer, typically a rainy and typhoon-prone season in Japan, the soil from the mountains around the Azuma Baseball Stadium may re-contaminate the decontaminated areas.

Although Japan completed the decontamination process around the stadium, right after Typhoon Hagibis last year, the radiation increased about 2000 times.

Aside from baseball, softball and football, the other 39 stadiums at which events will be held are located within a two-hour radius of the Olympic Stadium in Shinjuku, Tokyo.

The Olympic Stadium is about 244 kilometers from the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, so the site is not as affected by radiation as the more contaminated regions to the north.

But members of the anti-nuclear movement in Japan have stated that Tokyo also may not be safe. The 2017 Nobel Peace Laureate Tilman Ruff, who is on the Australian Board of the International Campaign of Abolish Nuclear Weapons (iCAN), said in November that radiation has not only reached areas south and west of the power plant like Chiba, Saitama and Fukushima, but contamination levels are also pretty high in the northern part of Tokyo as well.

The radiation level of soil that Tokyo residents have measured themselves has turned out to be as high as 0.443 μSv/h.

One of the biggest reasons behind the controversies regarding the high radiation levels and hosting the Tokyo Olympics has been the limited data provided by the Japanese Ministry of Environment. Officials have repeatedly said that Fukushima is safe, but they haven’t announced detailed data regarding the contamination or decontamination of the area around Fukushima.

Due to distrust in the government, some Japanese citizens have stepped up to carry out their own measurements of the radiation levels in the areas. Since the disaster, Minna-no Data Site, a collective database of citizen’s radioactivity measurements, has collected readings on food, soil and other things.

International environmental organizations are asking the Japanese government to release more measurements and to reveal the current level of radiation.

Despite the concerns, for professional athletes, the Olympics represent a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that, for many, is the culmination of their entire career. While they might be concerned about the current political situation or safety issues, very few of Korea’s potential Olympians are willing to give up an opportunity that they’ve trained most of their lives for.

Due to this, the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism and the Korean Olympic Committee (KOC) are considering running their own cafeteria to provide food for the athletes using ingredients from Korea.

BY KIM JEONG-YEON [kang.yoorim@joongang.co.kr]