Asia Life

Fukushima Reporting Complicates Tokyo’s Olympic Bid

Although still the front-runner, radiation fears—overhyped though they may be—could derail Tokyo’s Olympic bid.

Jonathan DeHart

To gamble with riots or radiation: that is the question. This seems to be what it comes down to for the International Olympic Committee (IOC), who will determine which city will host the 2020 Summer Olympics and Paralympics tomorrow in Buenos Aires.

While the chances looked strong for Tokyo as recently as a few weeks ago, fears over radiation leaks from Fukushima have recently put Japan’s capital on the hot seat. Meanwhile, Istanbul is still reeling after mass protests erupted in the streets at the end of May, and Madrid is embroiled in economic crisis (Spanish youth unemployment recently hit 56.1 percent).

Still, the three contenders are charging ahead. Businessweek reports that Madrid has built about 80 percent of its venues, Tokyo has earmarked 408.8 billion yen ($4.1 billion) to erect a new National Stadium (designed by lauded architect Zaha Hadid), and Istanbul has proclaimed its intent to pour $16.8 billion into infrastructure projects should the Turkish capital be chosen to host the games.

While there is no question that Tokyo is a model of urban efficiency and violent crime rates are indeed low – points delegates harped on in Switzerland this June – recent reports of radioactive water that is leaking by the hundreds of tons daily into the Pacific Ocean has returned the spotlight to the persistently troubling Fukushima crisis. Last Sunday, the BBC reported that radiation levels contained in the leaking water are in fact 18 times higher than originally reported.

At the opening press conference in Buenos Aires on Wednesday, an army of reporters did not hesitate to press Tsunekazu Takeda, President of the Japanese Olympic Committee and the Tokyo 2020 Bid Committee, for answers on the matter.

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Will the leaks contaminate food supply? Is the water in Tokyo safe? Can athletes and spectators visit Japan’s largest metropolis without fearing for their lives? A visibly exasperated Takeda attempted to brush aside the concerns, but the questions kept coming.

“There is no issue here,” he said. “Not one person in Tokyo has been affected by this issue. Tokyo and Fukushima are almost 250 kilometers apart. We are quite remote from Fukushima.”

Takeda continued: “The water is safe and the level of radioactivity is absolutely safe. The radiation level is absolutely safe. The 35 million people living in Tokyo are living in normal conditions. There is no problem.”

Although fears persist, science seems to support Takeda’s claims. Dr. Ryugo Hayano, professor of physics at the University of Tokyo, told The Diplomat, “The water leaks are worrisome, but the ongoing leaks do not affect the people in Tokyo (no effect on the external dose, nor on the internal contamination – fishing along the Fukushima coast is still prohibited).”

Fears of food contamination are “very much exaggerated,” Hayano added. “Even in Fukushima, more than 99 percent of local people do not have detectable levels of radioactive cesium in their bodies (for children, this number is 100 percent). There is nobody whose effective dose is above 1 millisievert/year in Fukushima.”

A research paper, co-authored by Hayano and five other Japanese scientists, summarizes these findings. It can be read here.

Hayano further emphasized his point, adding, “The foodstuffs sold in Fukushima (and elsewhere) are very clean (e.g., Fukushima prefecture tested all the 10 million brown rice bags produced in Fukushima last year, and only 71 exceeded the government-set limit of 100 Bq/kg).”

Hayano explained that 1 millisievert per year corresponds to ingesting some 70,000 Bq of radioactive cesium. “There is no way ordinary people – I mean people buying foodstuffs from supermarkets – can eat that much cesium. No way.”

The emphatic dismissal of safety concerns regarding radiation in Tokyo underline one key point: This bid clearly means a lot to Tokyo. No less than Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will cut short his trip to the G20 Summit to pass through BA and give a closing speech in the hours ahead of the announcement of the decision. Some have even suggested that the Japanese government recently announced its plan to dedicate nearly $500 million to build a subterranean ice wall to stop the leak in a bid to bolster its case to the IOC.

In another effort to tout the nation’s innovative prowess, Japan launched the first ever talking robotic astronaut, Kirobo, into orbit. On August 21, Kirobo appeared on screen aboard the International Space Station wearing a Tokyo 2020 pin and delivered the first ever interstellar speech by an android, cribbing Neil Armstrong’s famous remark and giving it a twist: “A robot took one small step toward a brighter future for us all.”

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Although bookmakers still show Tokyo as the front-runner, with so many factors on the table, from Istanbul’s social unrest and proximity to Syria and Madrid’s financial crisis to safety concerns in Tokyo, the final decision is anyone’s guess. During an August symposium in Yokohama, Japanese sports journalist Seijun Ninomiya added, “To be honest, it’s impossible to predict how it will turn out.”

Could Abe sway fence sitters? Munehiko Harada, a professor at Tokyo’s Waseda University, said, “It’s widely believed that London won the 2012 bid thanks to the inspirational speech by Sebastian Coe, chairman of the bid committee. At the final stage, what matters is not rationality, but emotion.”