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Fukushima Out of Control

Did Japan Lie Its Way Into the Olympics?

by PETER LEE

In order to secure the 2020 Tokyo Olympics for Tokyo, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe assured the IOC that the Fukushima situation was “under control”, per AFP:

“Let me assure you the situation is under control,” [Abe] said.

“It has never done or will do any damage to Tokyo.”

Abe replied decisively when pressed by veteran Norwegian IOC member Gerhard Heiberg over Fukushima.

“You should read past the headlines and look at the facts,” he said.

“The contaminated water has been contained in an area of the harbour only 0.3 square kilometres big.

“There have been no health problems and nor will there be. I will be taking responsibility for all the programmes with regard to the plant and the leaks.”

It looks like the key point, to paraphrase Bill Clinton is “what your definition of ‘situation’ is”.

If the “situation”  is currently officially stated radiological hazards to Tokyo and Olympic participants thanks to Fukushima, the answer is a qualified “yes”.

That is, if the Japanese government continues to give public credence to rather unfounded Tepco optimism that the Fukushima clusterfuck will simply maintain the current trend of dumping radioactive water into the ocean and the main danger to denizens of Tokyo involves getting radioactive sushi from some tuna caught out in the Pacific.

After Shinzo Abe came home from scoring the Olympics, he announced that the Japanese government would participate more actively in the faltering Tepco effort.

At the same time, Abe took pains not to stint on the denialist BS that underpinned the Olympics bid, as if the main problem was not hundreds of tons of sizzling fuel rods and thousands of gallons of radioactive water, but “rumours”:

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe ordered the scrapping of two Fukushima nuclear reactors that survived the 2011 tsunami, a write-off that threatens to complicate a turnaround plan the operator has presented to creditors.

He also said he stood by his commitments to the International Olympic Committee of insuring a safe 2020 Summer Games.

“I will work hard to counter rumours questioning the safety of the Fukushima plant,” he said.

Some fact if not rumour-obsessed locals explicitly rebutted Abe’s contention that the situation was “under control”.  Per Mainichi Shimbun:

The town assembly of nuclear disaster-hit Namie, Fukushima Prefecture, passed a protest resolution against Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Sept. 20 for declaring the situation surrounding the radioactively contaminated water leaks at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant “under control.”

The prime minister made the controversial comments during Tokyo’s final presentation at the International Olympic Committee (IOC)’s general meeting in Buenos Aires on Sept. 7, saying, “Some may have concerns about Fukushima. Let me assure you, the situation is under control.” He also said the effect of the water leak has been “completely blocked” within the 0.3 square kilometers of the plant’s harbor.

The Namie Town Assembly unanimously passed the Sept. 20 protest resolution stating that there is a “serious problem” with Abe’s remarks as they “contradict reality.” The protest also calls the situation at the plant, where some 300 metric tons of radioactively contaminated water is leaking into the ocean every day, “serious.”

“The situation has never been ‘under control,’ nor is the contaminated water ‘completely blocked,’” the protest read.

There is no guarantee that the current Fukushima clusterfuck will not get an upgrade.  Per anti-nuclear activist and CounterPunch writer Harvey Wasserman:

Fukushima’s owner, Tokyo Electric (Tepco), says that within as few as 60 days it may begin trying to remove more than 1300 spent fuel rods from a badly damaged pool perched 100 feet in the air. The pool rests on a badly damaged building that is tilting, sinking and could easily come down in the next earthquake, if not on its own.

The engineering and scientific barriers to emptying the Unit Four fuel pool are unique and daunting, says Gundersen. But it must be done to 100% perfection.

Should the attempt fail, the rods could be exposed to air and catch fire, releasing horrific quantities of radiation into the atmosphere. The pool could come crashing to the ground, dumping the rods together into a pile that could fission and possibly explode. The resulting radioactive cloud would threaten the health and safety of all us.

The situation at Unit 4 does look pretty dire.  The cooling pond, on top of a damaged structure, contains a reactor load of rods (Unit 4′s rods had been moved from the reactor to the pond as part of routine maintenance when the tsunami hit) that are usually gingerly manipulated under precisely controlled conditions by computer-driven cranes.  Conditions at Number 4 cooling pond are considerably less than optimal, as Reuters tells us, and the actual removal operation might play out like a frustrating encounter with one of those claw machines at Denny’s.

Botching the removal could lead to a ghastly, if not apocalyptic nuclear accident.  The possibility that Tepco is driven to try to remove the rods, not because it is ready to, but because the whole building is subsiding in water-soaked soil and may come crashing down, also inspires the heebie-jeebies.

Wasserman expressed a vote of no confidence in Tepco and launched a petition drive to strip Japan of its control over the Fukushima clean up and turn the effort over to the international community through the United Nations.

At the time I thought, hmmm, that doesn’t seem particularly practical.

However, a radio report from ABC Australia also indicates that the Japanese government now thinks it may not have the capabilities to handle Fukushima by itself, despite Abe’s personal assurance to the IOC (which should remind us of the lack of legal enforceability of brave statements made by politicians on their own kick).

Reportedly, Abe talked with French president Hollande at the UN this week and asked for French help to decommission two of the Fukushima units.

The broadcast also made the interesting point that Russia offered help shortly after the disaster, and also advised the Japanese government that Tepco’s strategy of cooling the hot, collapsed cores with water would a) not solve the problem and b) create a huge irradiated water mess.  The Japanese government apparently ignored the Russian approach and, guess what, the problem is not solved and there is a huge irradiated water mess.

Cynical observers will perhaps conclude that the Abe administration was aware of these major and currently insoluble issues from the git-go, but declined to involve itself in Tepco’s Fukushima work until after the Olympics bid was safely under its belt, allowing the Japanese government to base its presentation on Tepco’s sunny assurances rather than the somewhat grimmer reality prevailing at the site.

As for the Olympics bid itself, it looks like the Abe administration followed the Karl Rove formula for political jiu jitsu, namely attack your opponent’s strength and turn it into weakness (best typified by the Swift-boating of John Kerry’s war record during his presidential race against the service-dodging party-hearty history of George W. Bush in the Texas Air National Guard’s “champagne squadron” during the Vietnam War).

Refusing to regard the Fukushima situation as a liability, the Abe team turned on the waterworks to make the tsunami disaster the emotional centerpiece of its bid:

The effects of the tsunami and earthquake – killing over 18,000 people – was never far from the lips of the presentation team.

Princess Takamado – daughter-in-law of the Japanese Emperor – spoke in French expressing the gratitude Japan owed to the IOC in the way they had rallied round after the tsunami and how it had had an impact on the young living there.

“The Olympic bid has given the young people in the area affected something to dream for, the motivation to move forward with courage,” said the 60-year-old, who is the first member of Japan’s Royal Family to address the IOC.

“I know one of the IOC’s most important aspects is the legacy a Games leaves. The IOC will certainly remain in the heart of these young people.”

Mami Sato, two time Paralympian in the long jump, spoke movingly about her personal experience of when the disaster struck.

“I was not there at the time and I was really worried because I did not know if my family was still alive but luckily they were,” she said tearfully to the backdrop of a photo of her reunited with her parents.

Abe added: “Today, under the blue sky of Fukushima, there are young boys playing football and looking into the future and not the past.”

As to what’s really going on under the blue skies of Fukushima, this post-Olympics reportage gives a more honest picture (under the Irish Times’ typical feisty headline, Fukushima clean-up may be doomed):

Across much of Fukushima’s rolling green countryside they descend on homes like antibodies around a virus, men wielding low-tech tools against a very modern enemy: radiation. Power hoses, shovels and mechanical diggers are used to scour toxins that rained down from the sky 30 months ago. The job is exhausting, expensive and, say some, doomed to failure.

Today, a sweating four-man crew wearing surgical masks and boiler suits clean the home of Hiroshi Saito (71) and his wife Terue (68). Their aim is to bring average radiation at this home down to 1.5 microsieverts an hour, still several times what it was before the incident but safe enough, perhaps, for Saito’s seven grandchildren to visit. “My youngest grandchild has never been here,” he says.

Saito’s house is outside the mandatory evacuation zone, from which 160,000 people decamped by government order and have yet to return.  Another 40,000 or so from Saito’s municipality, Minamisoma, voluntarily evacuated and have yet to return.  According to the article, one estimate for the total cleanup bill for Fukushima may reach $600 billion.

And that’s only if things don’t get worse.

Peter Lee edits China Matters. His ground-breaking story on North Korea’s nuclear program, Japan’s Resurgent Militarism, appears in the March issue of CounterPunch magazine. He can be reached at: chinamatters (at) prlee. org.