The Nuclear Olympics: Crisis and Opportunity in Tokyo’s Election

Akio Matsumura

français | 日本語

Since the Fukushima accident, I have presented the opinions of several eminent scientists on the Fukushima disaster and we have received many insightful responses from other experts in many fields. Many thanks to our friends for constantly translating this work into French, Spanish, Japanese, and German – hard work that brought in thousands of new readers. Our joint efforts have gained a high level of international credibility and helped bring these issues the urgent attention they deserve.

Over these past three years I have begun to understand nuclear power and how its heavy risks – 10,000 years of environmental damage – are beyond what most are willing to accept as reality.

Next month the Japanese people have an opportunity to question Fukushima’s safety again. A special election for the governor of Tokyo will take place February 9, an election the entire world will watch and comment on, and one which include serious discussion of energy. Candidates have already declared themselves for or against nuclear power.

Why is a gubernatorial election of international importance? The honor and responsibility of hosting the 2020 Summer Olympic Games.

Tokyo Tower

Tokyo Tower

Over the next weeks, as election debates revisit the question of the ongoing crisis at Fukushima and nuclear power’s safety, it is useful to review the lessons learned from the March 2011 and the disaster that ensued.

  1. We have arrived at a very basic realization: every potentially dangerous machine should have an emergency “off” switch that shuts everything down completely — but nuclear power reactors don’t have one, because radioactivity cannot be shut off and therefore the irradiated nuclear fuel will continue to produce dangerous amounts of heat for many years after the plant’s shutdown.
  2. While nuclear power plants are generating electricity, they are also mass-producing enormous quantities of radioactive poisons that remain dangerous for centuries after the plant has been permanently shut down — poisons capable of contaminating food and water supplies long after they have been released to the environment.
  3. Water used to cool a damaged reactor core becomes radioactively contaminated, and as the cooling must continue for years the volume of contaminated water grows very large and is difficult to keep out of the environment; this is especially true of subterranean waters
  4. We have no radioactive waste repository in Japan where irradiated nuclear fuel can be safely isolated from the environment for 100,000 years, nor do we have an interim radioactive waste repository for the temporary safe storage of these nuclear wastes for one hundred to two hundred years.
  5. Japan cannot complete the decommissioning and removal of the radioactive cores of the crippled Fukushima nuclear power plants for at least 50 years, during which time radioactivity may continue to be emitted into the atmosphere, the soil, and the groundwater, while contaminated water will continue to flow into the Pacific Ocean.
  6. Because nuclear power plants raise national security issues, governments try to hide the internal workings of these plants from public attention, including failures and episodes of mismanagement that could compromise public safety.
  7. Since the medical effects of radiation exposure such as the appearance of thyroid disorders, cancers, leukemia, and damage to the gene pool will take several years or decades to become apparent, society will experience a gradually flowering crop of radiation-induced illnesses.
  8. Exporting our nuclear power technology to developing countries can increase the risk of more uncontrolled nuclear disasters from this immature technology not only from accidental causes but as a result of conventional warfare or terrorist attack in politically unstable regions.
  9. Every nuclear reactor also produces a man-made element called plutonium, which is the primary nuclear explosive material used in the world’s arsenal of nuclear weapons, and which will remain available for tens of thousands of years after the last reactor has been shut down.

These nine truths are easily digested here, but operators, bureaucrats, and many journalists let them sit shrouded in mystery for the past three years. Public worries are further compounded with no good solution to contain the radiation emanating from the crippled reactors and a still-unknown number of children affected by thyroid and other cancers, a number we will only see over the next five to ten years.

Coinciding with that period is the preparation for the Tokyo Summer Olympics. There are few events more prestigious to host. The Games are a huge investment of money and pride – Japan has budgeted more than $8 billion, and their international reputation depends on a smooth performance. The foremost concern for the IOC and Japan during the bidding process was safety: what impact will Fukushima and its radiation have on athletes and spectators? Japan satisfied the IOC’s qualms.  The IOC president Jacques Rogge said to Japan, “You have described yourself as a safe pair of hands.”  The information coming from Fukushima should have led to a different conclusion. I hope this is more directly addressed through the debates as Tokyo elects a governor.

The best way to address Fukushima as a safety threat to the Olympic Games will be when the “safe hands” include those of Japan, the IOC, and international scientific and engineering experts.   It will be this concerned consortium that will assess and confirm that everything that can be done to mitigate the threat from Fukushima has been identified and that appropriate and timely action has been taken. That will be the most respected Gold Medal of the games.

Five candidates will race to govern Tokyo and the city’s 13.2 million inhabitants. The next governor of Tokyo will be in a once-in-a-century position to help Japan build new international relations and a new energy policy. The ideal candidate will have unique qualifications: long term perspective, first-rate diplomatic skills, a clear grasp of energy policy, and municipal experience. With this special skill set in mind, Mr. Morihiro Hosokawa, a former Prime Minister and former Governor of Kumamoto who entered the race earlier this week, stands a head above the rest.

I wish Tokyo a successful Olympic Games. The city’s people can show they wish this as well by putting their confidence in a leader cut out to find opportunity in the crisis ahead.

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