Fukushima dogs Japan on road to Tokyo 2020

TOKYO may be dubbed a safe choice to host the 2020 Olympics. But in fact the road ahead to 2020 is fraught with risks due to the ongoing toxic water crisis at Fukushima nuclear station.

To members of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), Tokyo probably looked more attractive than Madrid or Istanbul, since Japan has neither the complicated economic problems of Spain nor the threat of political instability that confronts Turkey.

Besides, Tokyo can be depended upon to get the necessary Games infrastructure - from stadiums and highways to the no-less-important athlete's village - in time for the big event.

Perhaps the IOC did not want sleepless nights over the sort of construction delays that plague Rio de Janeiro, the 2016 Summer Games host, and Sochi, which will hold the 2014 Winter Games.

But there is another reason Tokyo is considered a "safe" bet. Told that Tokyo's image had been hurt by the toxic water situation at the tsunami-stricken Fukushima nuclear plant, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe made a last-minute change to his speech in the final presentation to IOC members.

He declared: "Let me assure you, the situation is under control. It has never done and will never do any damage to Tokyo."

He even went on to say that the tainted water in the small harbour next to the plant was "completely blocked".

But for experts in Japan, it is clear that the Fukushima situation is far from being "under control".

The Japanese media did not call Mr Abe's statement an outright lie, but the Mainichi Shimbun daily noted the "obvious gap between Mr Abe's words and reality".

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, in a rather unconvincing bid to rescue Mr Abe, said that while the water in the harbour was not completely sealed from the sea, its toxicity is way below acceptable limits. "What the Prime Minister meant to say was that the impact of the toxic water in the harbour is completely blocked," Mr Suga concluded.

Many Japanese would disagree. A survey by the TV Tokyo network found that 64.6 per cent of the Japanese people were astounded by the PM's remarks.

Fukushima residents displaced from their homes by the nuclear disaster were enraged, in particular fishermen whose activities have been put on hold because of contamination of sea water near the coast.

The Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco) that runs the Fukushima facility has deployed what it calls "silt fences" in the harbour that are supposed to allow sea water to go through but not radioactive particles. But even Tepco has acknowledged that the silt fences are not foolproof. Besides, there is one point in the harbour where water can flow out into the ocean.

Most people suspect that the government and Tepco have yet to give a full picture of the nuclear crisis to the public. Had Fukushima been under control, there would not have been the discovery in recent months of one unpredictable leak after the other from tanks used to store tainted water.

Two and a half years after the accident, experts believe that toxic water continues to seep into the ocean. It is also estimated that as much as 300 tonnes of tainted water could be leaking into the sea every day. Toxic water is still being found in monitoring wells, suggesting that much of the tainted water could have gone underground.

Last month, in the run-up to the vote for the 2020 Olympic host city, the Japanese government finally decided to take a lead role in managing the situation at Fukushima as it was evident that Tepco was not up to the task.

The government said it would pay to build a massive ice wall below ground to contain tainted ground water, a plan panned by some critics as unworkable.

Can the toxic water issue be satisfactorily resolved? No one quite knows yet. Tepco will only say that it hopes to stabilise the situation as quickly as possible.

Can the issue be resolved by July 2020 when the Games begin?

That's an even tougher question to answer.

Right now, Japan is talking of nothing but the Olympics - not just about putting on a good show in 2020, but also winning as many gold medals as possible. Some writers also argue that hosting the Olympics can give Japan a much-needed economic and psychic boost, in the same way the 1959 choice to pick Tokyo for the 1964 Games was the prelude to a dazzling era of post-war growth.

But the outlook for now is sombre. Much remains to be done not only at the crippled nuclear plant, but also for areas hit in the March 2011 quake and tsunami disaster.

A damning report this week said that temporary housing built for people who lost their homes in the disaster are still 90 per cent occupied 21/2 years later as new homes are not being built fast enough. Reconstruction of disaster-hit areas may now be held back, with manpower and other resources needed to build Olympic hardware.

Hosting the 2020 Games, while good for Japan's economy and restoring the country's spirits, should not push the Fukushima crisis and quake reconstruction into second or even third place on the list of priorities.

Unless Mr Abe can make good his pledge at Buenos Aires, the 2020 Games will have lost a large part of its meaning.


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