As the IOC prepares to vote on the 2020 Olympic Games’ host city in Buenos Aires on Sept. 7, experts are voicing increasing concern about the full extent of the environmental legacy of the 2011 Fukushima Nuclear disaster less than 150 miles north of Tokyo.
Urgent investigations are under way into the effects of releases of highly radioactive water into the Pacific Ocean from the stricken Fukushima nuclear power plant, amid fears it could contaminate Tokyo Bay. Marathon swimmers and triathletes would race in the Bay under Tokyo 2020’s Olympic plans.
But as Japan’s government battles to stem daily releases of 300 tons of groundwater into the Pacific, scientists are scrambling to revise models that assess the environmental damage already done.
Erik Behrens of the German Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research, which has been at the forefront of investigations into Pacific irradiation following the 2011 tsunami that destroyed the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant, told me: “Our simulation suggests that by large scale recirculations within the subtropical gyre, contaminated water could reenter the Kuroshio [ocean current] south of Japan. That could be a pathway of contaminated water into the surrounding waters of Tokyo.”
The Helmholtz team’s initial models, run before news of the 300-ton-a-day leaks, had found the Kuroshio current acted as a barrier to irradiated water flowing south towards Tokyo. Behrens added he expected “concentrations should be several magnitudes lower than concentrations near Fukushima.” However he declined to comment when asked if this meant there would be no future risk to public health in the waters of Tokyo Bay.
Tokyo 2020 has been robust about hosting a safe Olympics. In an interview with DPA last November, Japan’s NOC president and bid chairman, Tsunekazu Takeda, was quoted saying Tokyo has nothing to fear from the Fukushima disaster. “There is a normal percentage of radiation,” he was reported as saying. “Many people misunderstood that Tokyo is so far. It’s not the same, far away from the Fukushima area.”
More than two years after the disaster, the situation at Fukushima Dai-ichi, which is
238km (148 miles) from Tokyo, remains grave. A report from the International Atomic
Energy Agency released in May indicated the situation inside the plant’s reactors, which it said will take “25-30 years” to decommission, was still impossible to assess.
“It is known that reactor building structures have sustained damage resulting in
modified building characteristics,” announced the IAEA. “Due to the high radiation
environments of these units, detailed information regarding the condition of the reactor
buildings is not currently available… The lack of detailed inspection data poses a significant challenge in creating realistic structural models.”
This is despite seismologists at Tohoku University’s Department of Geophysics exhorting Japanese authorities to reinforce the stricken site urgently. In a February 2012 report on the magnitude-7.1 Iwaki earthquake that occurred about a month after the tsunami, a team led by Professor Dapeng Zhao announced the power plant is itself built on an extremely vulnerable site.
“The similar structures under the Iwaki source area and the Fukushima nuclear power plant suggest the security of the nuclear power plant site should be strengthened to withstand potential large earthquakes in the future,” the study found. An earthquake under the site could have catastrophic consequences.
Professor Emeritus Panayotis Carydis of the Laboratory for Earthquake Engineering at the National Technical University in Athens led a study on the impact of the tsunami at the plant. If the plant cannot be repaired and strengthened, Carydis told me, a similar magnitude
earthquake to the March 2011 event would result in “total collapse” of the power station.
He added: “Smaller magnitude but significant earthquakes such as the [7.1 magnitude] April 11, 2011, Iwaki earthquake, which occurred 60km [37 miles] south of the plant, could be a serious threat to the structural integrity of the crippled plant, if occurring nearer
to the plant, whilst bearing in mind that the plant’s decommissioning and eventual scrapping will last at least three to four decades.”
Matt Scott is a leading independent investigative journalist who worked as a reporter and columnist for the Daily Telegraph and The Guardian. He can be reached on Twitter @Matt5cott. This story appeared in the blog, The Sport Intern. The editor is Karl Heinz-Huba of Lorsch, Germany. He can be reached at ISMG@aol.com. The article is reprinted here with permission of Heinz-Huba.