Fukushima Radiation Hotspots Raise Concerns Ahead of Tokyo Olympics
“This is one of the most shocking discoveries I’ve made in decades of radiation surveys.”
The troubling discovery was supposed to remain under wraps, until Greenpeace Japan determined on December 4 that it had no choice but to publish a press release entitled “High-level radiation hot spots found at J-Village, the starting point of Tokyo 2020 torch relay.”
The story remains largely unnoticed in Japan, but it raises serious questions about public health, transparency and accountability that transcend the country’s borders all the way to Switzerland and Argentina. It also deals a heavy blow to the Japanese government’s narrative that “all is well in Fukushima,” a region forever tainted by the triple meltdown at the eponymous nuclear plant, as Tokyo gears up to host the 2020 Olympics.
On a deeper level, the sequence of events sheds light on an apparent cover-up that would result in a public relations fiasco — that is, if the media covering the issue were asking the right questions, connecting the dots and delivering the full picture.
“This is one of the most shocking discoveries I’ve made in decades of radiation surveys,” says Shaun Burnie, a senior nuclear specialist at Greenpeace who has been the environmental NGO’s point man in Fukushima since the triple meltdown of March 2011. “One of the reasons is that the Tokyo Olympics torch relay is set to kick off from this very location on March 26.”
A Symbol of Fukushima’s Cleanup
The location where the radiation hotspots were discovered, J-Village, is highly symbolic for Japan. Tens of millions of people first heard of it at the peak of the Fukushima nuclear crisis, when Japanese Self-Defense Force troops dispatched in a last-ditch effort to bring the situation under control turned the sports complex into a forward operating base. The location of J-Village, approximately 20 kilometers (12 miles) south of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, was ideal because it was right at the edge of the mandatory evacuation perimeter imposed by the government — often referred to as the exclusion zone.
Over the years that followed, J-Village became a logistics center for the decontamination of areas tainted by radioactive fallout from the nuclear plant. And in April 2019, the reopening of a completely renovated J-Village National Training Center became the cornerstone of a major public relations campaign to signal that the cleanup of Fukushima was finally complete.
It’s no surprise, therefore, that the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe chose J-Village as the “grand” starting point, on March 26, 2020, of the torch relay that will see the Olympic flame travel across all of Japan’s 47 prefectures — the equivalent of U.S. States — over 121 days.
The Tokyo Games themselves are seen by many in Japan as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to shine on the world stage. And in the same way that the Tokyo 1964 Summer Olympics marked the country’s rise from the ashes of war, the 2020 edition is being marketed, especially on the domestic front, as the “Reconstruction Olympics” in reference to the triple disaster of March 2011.
An Unexpected Discovery
On October 26, a team of radiation experts from Greenpeace, which has been carrying out annual surveys across Fukushima since the 2011 nuclear accident, detected abnormally high levels of radiation at several points around the sports complex. The survey was part of an annual study covering the main contaminated areas of Fukushima, which involves taking tens of thousands of measurements with high-precision sensors mounted on drones, vehicles and handheld devices.
The highest reading, 71 microsieverts per hour at ground level, was discovered in a parking area. “I was standing less than one meter from the hotspot and two meters from a parked car from which a woman had just come out,” recalls team leader Shaun Burnie. “Just 30 to 40 meters away, soccer players were sitting on the tarmac eating their lunch. There were also sports fans, family members and coaches.”
According to Greenpeace, the figure of 71 microsieverts per hour is “1,775 times higher than the 0.04 microsieverts per hour prior to the Fukushima Daiichi triple reactor meltdown”. After the accident, the Japanese government took the controversial decision to raise the maximum exposure threshold for civilians in Fukushima from 1 millisievert (=1,000 microsieverts) per year, the figure recommended by the World Health Organization and the International Atomic Energy Agency, to 20 millisieverts per year. Even on this basis, the annualized equivalent of 71 microsieverts per hour amounts to nearly 622 millisieverts, a figure 31 times higher.
“Obviously no one is going to stand over a hotspot for a year, but it indicates that there is a problem with contamination,” says Burnie. “The much more serious hazard is inhaling cesium-rich microparticles. The long-term risks remain a big unknown.”
[Note: The health risks associated with external exposure to such levels of radiation are a highly complex and contentious issue that goes beyond the scope of this article. It is partly addressed in this Scientific American article on the return of Fukushima residents displaced by the nuclear crisis.]
The Greenpeace team spent only about two hours on location, but it quickly identified six hotspots within approximately 100 meters of each other. “Finding such high levels, especially in areas open to the public, was an unexpected situation to say the least,” says Burnie.
The team immediately discussed and considered three options: 1) an immediate release of the information; 2) informing authorities and urging them to take action; and 3) holding onto the information, compiling the data from the entire Fukushima survey — a process that takes between one and two months — and publishing the annual report as planned sometime at the end of February or early March (see for example Greenpeace Japan’s March 2019 report).
“We immediately ruled out the third option because of the high radiation levels,” says Burnie. “The first option was very tempting, but we wanted to give the authorities of J-Village, Fukushima Prefecture and the government an opportunity to take action immediately.” Greenpeace settled for option two, in the form of a letter to Environment Minister Shinjiro Koizumi.
Copies of the letter were sent separately to the Governor of Fukushima Prefecture (who also presides over J-Village), the president of the Japanese Olympic and Paralympic Committee, the president of the International Paralympic Committee, and last but not least, the President of the powerful International Olympic Committee (IOC) in Lausanne.
Birth of a Public Relations Fiasco
On November 18, Greenpeace entrusted the letter to an official from the Environment Ministry’s PR department. The copies were all sent on the same day via registered mail. In the letter, the NGO raised “urgent concerns,” presented the survey’s methodology and findings, and recommended an “immediate and extensive” survey of the public area in and around J-Village.
What followed was two weeks of complete radio silence, despite regular follow-up inquiries by telephone to the Environment Ministry and J-Village’s PR departments. Until, on Monday, Dec. 2, Greenpeace Japan received a phone call from a reporter with the Sankei Shimbun, a daily newspaper on the (arguably hard) right of the political spectrum. The journalist sought confirmation about the survey, which a Greenpeace spokesperson refused to confirm or deny.
On Tuesday, the same journalist called again, this time with the precise figure of 71 microsieverts per hour. The cat was out of the bag, and the Sankei article set to go to print on Wednesday. That is what prompted Greenpeace to go public on Dec. 4 with a full-fledged press release.
The NGO’s original plan, according to Senior Energy Campaigner Kazue Suzuki, had been to wait until mid-December for a proper response from the government and J-Village. At the time of writing (Dec. 8), the only reaction Greenpeace had received from the Environment Ministry’s PR department, according to Suzuki, was a verbal commitment to “work towards being able to reply by Dec.19.”
At this point in time, it would have been reasonable to believe that authorities were simply dragging their feet, all the more so because Greenpeace Japan is not exactly popular in government circles due to its campaigns against Japan’s whaling programs, and the NGO’s highly critical stance on the issue of nuclear decontamination. But the Sankei’s Dec. 4 article also carried revelations that raise a whole new set of questions.
A Discreet Bombshell
The Sankei article, entitled “Starting Point of Olympic Torch Relay Re-Decontaminated,” cited “multiple government sources” confirming Greenpeace’s survey findings, including the maximum figure of 71 microsieverts per hour. It also revealed for the first time to the public the existence of a letter “requesting action from the Environment Ministry, the Japanese Olympic Committee and the IOC“ — but stopped short of mentioning that the letter had been sent 2 weeks earlier.
“The government takes survey results seriously due to possible safety concerns among countries participating in the Olympics”, noted the article, before delivering this crucial nugget: “On December 2, representatives from the Environment Ministry, local authorities, Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco) and J-Village held a meeting, and on Dec. 3, Tepco removed [contaminated] soil from the surrounding area.”
More importantly, the Sankei article suddenly made it clear, albeit between the lines, that neither the government nor Fukushima Prefecture or Tepco — entities that have repeatedly pledged greater transparency over radioactive contamination — had deemed it necessary to inform the public about the hotspots or their decision to decontaminate those areas.
Also puzzling is the silence of Fukushima Governor Masao Uchibori, who as President of J-Village was a direct recipient of the Greenpeace letter. If this matter came to the attention of his constituents, his administration would most likely have to field questions from angry parents whose children attended summer camps at the facility, among other concerned citizens.
What’s more, there is no sign of any intention on the part of authorities to conduct an immediate and comprehensive survey of the entire J-Village complex, as urged by Greenpeace Japan. “If this were a nuclear facility,” says Burnie, “the matter would have to be reported as an incident and the area closed off immediately.”
Low-Key Media Coverage
Unlike what one would expect in nuclear-powered countries such as France or the United States, none of Japan’s mainstream media have deemed this story worthy of high-profile coverage.
Sankei’s short article was buried on page 26, which explains perhaps why few other Japanese media such as the Mainichi Shimbun picked up the story, all in a similar, low-key fashion. The headlines didn’t read anything close to “Government Occults Radiation Hotspots at J-Village,” nor did the articles raise questions about transparency or accountability.
More often than not, even Greenpeace’s name was replaced with “an environmental protection group,” despite its conspicuous role as the whistleblower that initially brought this matter to the government’s attention.
Did authorities know of any hotspots at or near the facility before receiving the Greenpeace letter? If not, why did they fail to spot them? Why did they choose to remain silent after determining that radiation levels warranted an intervention? Are they in a position to guarantee that J-Village will remain clean until the Olympic torch relay? Is it reasonable to hold sports training sessions and competitions involving children at the facility?
All of these questions have yet to be addressed, and it’s unclear if they ever will be.
This is not the first time that news related to the nuclear accident at Fukushima Daiichi remained, intentionally or not, under the radar of Japanese media. Nor is it the first time that the government has opted not to disclose matters directly relevant to public health or safety.
Notable examples include the Japanese media’s reticence to use the word “meltdown” for 6 weeks after the nuclear accident, opting instead to relay the government and Tepco’s less frightening “partial damage to fuel rods” wording; the general absence in media reports of testimonies from nuclear evacuees openly expressing their distrust of data from the government’s radiation monitoring posts (some claimed to have seen workers regularly decontaminating the area immediately around the sensors, presumably to make sure the readings remained low); and the revelation in February 2012 that the Japanese government, in its darkest hour, had contemplated evacuating Tokyo.
Outside Japan: the Argentina Angle and the IOC
On the international front, the issue that appears to worry the Japanese government the most, as underlined by the Sankei article, is how countries participating in the Tokyo 2020 Olympics might react. But there are other dots that no Japanese or foreign media seem to have connected so far: J-Village was also an important facility during the Rugby World Cup hosted by Japan this year, and served as a training ground for Argentina’s national team less than 6 weeks before the hotspots were discovered.
According to a reporter from Argentina’s leading newspaper La Nacion, who covered the team during the tournament, Los Pumas (as the squad is known) spent at least one week training and sleeping at J-Village in mid-September. Would they have done so if there had been any suspicions about radiation levels in the area?
Neither Argentina’s national squad nor the Argentina Rugby Union could be reached for comment at the time of writing. Details about this story and an offer to collaborate on it were extended to La Nacion’s reporter as early as December 4, but they have yet to elicit a formal response.
The other angle that needs to be pursued is in Switzerland, namely at the headquarters of the Grand Master of Ceremonies itself, the International Olympic Committee in Lausanne.
The IOC is on the list of institutions that received the registered letter from Greenpeace Japan. And just like its Japanese counterparts, it has yet to respond to the NGO — let alone inform the public about the findings. Among the questions that come to mind are: what is the IOC’s position on the matter of radioactive hotspots? And how does it feel about hosting a large-scale public event such as the launch of the torch relay at J-Village, without a comprehensive survey being conducted first?
Here again, a Swiss newspaper, La Liberté, was contacted directly and provided with detailed information about the story, particularly on the IOC angle, but its editors chose not to follow through.
It’s unusual for a journalist to include personal thoughts as part of a news story. But in the spirit of Citizen Truth’s belief “in the power of regular people sharing their news, thoughts and experiences,” this reporter — who, like any journalist, is also an ordinary citizen — would like to switch to the first person to share a few considerations with the readers, while keeping them separate from the story itself.
I spent several years covering the Fukushima nuclear accident as a reporter for Nuclear Intelligence Weekly, and more episodically for other non-Japanese media, including Time, the Independent and Canada’s CBC. I interviewed evacuees, spent the equivalent of one week with a farmer inside the exclusion zone, walked around with an industrial-grade Geiger counter, wrote a long critical assessment of decontamination efforts in Fukushima for the Asia-Pacific Journal, and even participated as an observer in a survey at sea off Fukushima Daiichi aboard a research vessel operated by the Tokyo University of Marine Science and Technology.
What are my takeaways? To name just a few related to this article: Japanese media are notoriously reluctant to disclose any negative information that hasn’t been confirmed by the government or other official sources; understanding radiation figures and what they mean takes a lot of time and effort, and there are still significant doubts about the government’s willingness to be transparent and forthcoming with the numbers, especially when they don’t fit with the narrative that all is well in Fukushima.
Despite the Japanese government’s constant assurances, the consequences of the Fukushima nuclear crisis are not going to go away anytime soon, nor are the radionuclides that have been scattered across large areas of the prefecture. You only have to look at a map to see that 70 to 80 percent of the land most affected by radioactive fallout consists of mountains and forests that can by definition not be “decontaminated” without causing tremendous damage to the environment. The direct consequence is that radioactive particles continue to be scattered across areas designated as “safe to return to,” and although background radiation levels are receding, they will remain above normal even in the reopened parts of Fukushima for decades to come.
To me, it’s no surprise that this story appears to have been nipped in the bud, or at least neutralized for now. The only scenario I can think of that would prompt Japan’s mainstream media to revisit it would be if an official protest were lodged by another country or institution, for example, Argentina’s Rugby Union. Only time will tell.