Tokyo 2020: Q&A with Arnie Gundersen

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By Fairewinds Administrator Samantha Donalds

After Saturday’s announcement that Tokyo had won the 2020 Summer Olympics bid, we thought it would be timely to post an old video on our Facebook page about radiation levels in Tokyo: The video, Tokyo Soil Samples Would Be Considered Nuclear Waste In The US, was first posted after Fairewinds’ February 2012 trip to Japan.  Since reposting this video on Facebook Monday morning in the wake of the Olympics announcement, the video has been seen by more than 10,000 people, shared by 200, and has sparked significant discussion on our Facebook page (including a few good “20-20 vision” jokes), along with some excellent questions. I sat down with Fairewinds Chief Engineer Arnie Gundersen to discuss some of the issues and questions raised during the past few days by our viewers and followers. Ultimately, it is clear to us that Saturday’s Olympic Committee announcement has officially changed the conversation about Fukushima Daiichi.

Q: The Fukushima Daiichi triple meltdown was in 2011, and your Tokyo soil samples were from 2012.  Do you think the Tokyo area is unsafe now, and do you think it will still be unsafe in 2020?

A: It’s crystal clear to me and to other scientists that the people in Tokyo and throughout Japan received high radiation doses during the months following the Fukushima Daiichi accident in 2011. The data from a full year later, as seen in our 2012 video, clearly shows that much of that radiation had fallen and remained in unanticipated locations throughout Tokyo. Over time the radiation has been carried off with rainfall directly into Tokyo Bay; and indeed radiation levels in Tokyo Bay continue to increase. Data from air filters in Japan indicates that additional radiation, well above background levels still remains in the air, and it is unclear what the situation will be in 7 years.

Q: Is this decision to host the 2020 Olympics in Japan a good thing for the Fukushima Daiichi cleanup and for Japan? So far the Japanese government has been downplaying the risks of Fukushima radiation and not taking cleanup very seriously. Do you think that the Japanese politicians will start taking the cleanup seriously now that Japan has an international event to host on the horizon?

A: I think hosting the Olympics in 2020 is an attempt by the Japanese to change the topic. I don’t think people around the world are going to care until 2020 approaches. There is a seven-year window for the Japanese government to work to make Tokyo a showcase for the entire world to view. I think the Japanese government wanted to host the Olympics to improve the morale of the people of Japan after the Fukushima Daiichi accident. Unfortunately, it’s taking people’s attention off of the true cost of the accident, in terms of both money and public health. The radiation fallout in Tokyo and throughout Japan has been politicized by the Abe administration.Good Japanese scientists are simply afraid to measure what is in the environment as a result. Look at Fairewinds Demystifying Nuclear Power blog post by Art Keller. Keller details mismanagement of the cleanup, uncalibrated equipment that garners exceptionally low radiation readings, and a severe lack of training in radiation cleanup and monitoring for the Japanese personnel involved in the cleanup and radiation monitoring efforts.  What’s important is that we get good science to measure throughout Japan not just Tokyo, and good scientific inquiry should move forward without political influence.

Fairewinds Viewer Question: Although its impossible to tell where things will be seven years from now, what would Arnie’s advice be for anyone (athletes, press, builders, merchants, etc.) who has to make a commitment soon to participate in Tokyo 2020?

A: No one can say, because this is seven years in the future, that is simply too hard to predict. The environment will still be polluted in seven years, but it is impossible to currently determine by how much or whether the contamination would be enough to harm visitors who are only in Japan for two weeks. I will say that when I was in Tokyo in 2012, I was careful only to eat food from the southern islands and Australia. However, that was one year after the accident, not nine years. Good science during the next seven years is the key to making this determination.

Also, there is a huge difference between being in Tokyo for two weeks versus living there continuously.  Many people in Japan are being exposed to detrimental levels of radiation day in and day out for many years, so we should be much more concerned about the public health of the people living in Japan for extensive periods rather than the possible exposures for short-term visitors.

Q: Some people on our Facebook page said they didn’t think the 2020 Tokyo Olympics wouldn’t ultimately take place. As one commenter said, “Tokyo will be a ghost town by then.”  What do you think?

A: Fukushima Daiichi poses many problems and we have not heard the end of them. It’s not clear how future events will affect the rest of Japan.  The triple meltdown at Fukushima Daiichi is the largest industrial catastrophe in the history of the world, and the radiation releases are ongoing. Currently, no valid methodology is being applied to lessen these releases, nor is the proposed ‘ice wall’, which is more than two years out, a valid technology.

Fairewinds Viewer Question: Given the rate of radionuclide decay, what is risk of hot particles, rad-dust inhalation, etc. in 7 years? And how does the exertion of athletes in peak performance affect the likelihood of internal contamination from radionuclides?  

A: Cesium has a half-life of 30 years, which means it stays in the environment for 300 years. What’s more important is how much cesium the rain washes into Tokyo Bay, and we need good science to measure that.

Fairewinds Viewer Question: Is the air at Tokyo more dangerous than the air in London? Especially when one knows radioactive things can get re-airborne, such as radioactive pollen, black radioactive dust, etc?

A: Believe it or not, this is a question we are asked often; not necessarily the comparison between London and Tokyo, but the question of where it is safe to live. We answered that question on the FAQ page of our website, and we are reposting our answer to that here:

We cannot legally give specific advice on where it is safe to live or travel.  Every region has its own unique health and safety problems, nuclear and otherwise, and it is not within our area of expertise to evaluate specific geographic risks.  For more information on this topic, you can watch our 2011 interview with Dr. Steve Wing for a discussion on geographical risks and the problem of relocating. On our Fairewinds book list, we recommend “The Enemy Within: The High Cost of Living Near Nuclear Reactors” by Jay Gould, and “Living Downstream: A Scientist’s Personal Investigation of Cancer and the Environment” by Sandra Steingraber.

Related Material

Fairewinds Video: Tokyo Soil Samples would be Nuclear Waste in the US 

Libbe HaLevy interview with Arnie Gundersen: Olympic Insanity + If Gundersen were in Charge at Fukushima

Fairewinds FAQS: We answer questions about health concerns, radiation exposure, radiation testing, and more.

Fairewinds Video: TEPCO Believes Mission Accomplished & Regulators Allow Radioactive Dumping in Tokyo Bay

Demystifying Nuclear Power Blog Post by Art Keller: Cleanup From Fukushima Daiichi: Technological Disaster Or Crisis In Governance?

Japanese Street Art exhibit at the Japanese Foreign Correspondents Club addresses Fukushima Daiichi, government cover-up, and the 2020 Tokyo Olympics