Tokyo // Amid the jubilant celebrations, the positive economic forecasts and the shiny new stadium plans, there is one dark presence casting a shadow over Tokyo’s successful 2020 Olympic bid: Fukushima.
The nuclear power station on the north-east Pacific coast, severely damaged in the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, is the most epic challenge facing Japan in recent decades.
In contrast to the seven years that Tokyo has to prepare for the 2020 Olympics, the timescale for Fukushima’s future is significantly longer – its painstaking decommissioning process is forecast to last for decades.
Already it has caused trouble in terms of the Olympics. In the critical final weeks before the bid result, Fukushima hit the headlines repeatedly with a string of contaminated water leakages from hastily-built storage tanks and clusters of on-site radiation hot spots.
It was perhaps thanks to an 11th hour impassioned speech by Shinzo Abe, the prime minster, that the city still managed to win the bid, after he insisted the plant situation was under control and emphasized the safety of Tokyo, located 240 kilometres to the south.
At the same time, Mr Abe also stepped up government intervention, unveiling dramatic plans to build an expansive wall of frozen earth stretching 30 metres deep into the ground to stop contaminated water seeping from the site.
But as the dust settles after the jubilation of a successful bidding process, that speech may already have come back to haunt Mr Abe.
With critics increasingly questioning whether the plant really was “under control”, the prime minister last week felt compelled to make a personal visit to the plant to defend his comments.
Following his tour, Mr Abe said he stood by his commitments to the International Olympic Committee of insuring a safe Summer Games, while outlining a new safety recovery road map for the next seven years and pledging another ¥1 trillion (Dh37 billion) for the plant operators.
“One of the main purposes of this visit was to see it for myself, after I made those remarks on how the contaminated water has been handled,” he said. “I am convinced that the contaminated water leaks have been blocked within 0.3 square kilometres of space within the cove by the plant, as I said in Buenos Aires.
“In light of that, I will work hard to counter rumours questioning the safety of the Fukushima plant.”
The public, however, is likely to remain wary. A strong anti-nuclear sentiment remains, and the plant will most likely remain among the most politically sensitive of issues during the countdown to the Olympics.
Tens of thousands remain in temporary housing across Japan as a result of the 2011 disaster, which caused fuel-rod meltdowns and released radiation contamination into the surrounding environment.
Numerous complex legal cases likely to last for years are also under way involving thousands of former residents who are suing the government and plant operators for the loss of relatives, homes and businesses.
Among those who have expressed concerned about the health effects of staging the Olympics alongside the still-stricken power station is Helen Caldicott, the Australian anti-nuclear campaigner.
“It’s extremely dangerous to expose healthy young bodies to radioactive air, water and possibly food,” she said. “The games should definitely be cancelled from a medical perspective.
“It could be very serious if there is another earthquake greater than 7 on the Richter scale. One or more buildings could collapse, releasing huge amounts of radiation into the air and sea and almost certainly polluting Tokyo, which is already significantly polluted”.
Updated: September 22, 2013 04:00 AM