Can Olympics help Fukushima rebound?

The Morning Call - - NATION & WORLD -

“The peo­ple from that area have dealt with these is­sues for so long and so deeply, the Olympics are kind of a tran­sient event,” said Kyle Cleve­land, an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor of so­ci­ol­ogy at Tem­ple Univer­sity’s cam­pus in Ja­pan. “They’re go­ing to see this as a pub­lic relations ploy.”

It was midafter­noon in March 2011 when a 9.0 earth­quake struck at sea, send­ing tsunamis rac­ing to­ward land.

The ini­tial cri­sis fo­cused on the coast­line, where thou­sands were swept to their deaths. But an­other con­cern soon arose as flood­wa­ters shut down the power supply and re­ac­tor cool­ing sys­tems at the Fukushima Dai­ichi plant.

Three of the fa­cil­ity’s six re­ac­tors suf­fered fuel melt­downs, re­leas­ing ra­di­a­tion into the ocean and at­mos­phere.

Res­i­dents within a 12-mile “ex­clu­sion zone” were forced to evac­u­ate; oth­ers in places such as Fukushima city, about 38 miles in­land, fled as ra­dioac­tive par­ti­cles trav­eled by wind and rain.

The pop­u­lace be­gan to ques­tion an­nounce­ments from the Tokyo Elec­tric Power Co. (Tepco) about the scope of the con­tam­i­na­tion, said Cleve­land, who is writ­ing a book on the catas­tro­phe and its after­math.

“In the first 10 weeks, Tepco was down­play­ing the risk,” he said. “Eventually, they were dis­sem­bling and ly­ing.”

The com­pany has been or­dered to pay mil­lions in dam­ages, and three for­mer ex­ec­u­tives have been charged with pro­fes­sional neg­li­gence. Crews have re­moved massive amounts of con­tam­i­nated soil, washed down build­ings and roads, and be­gun a decades­long process to ex­tract fuel from the re­ac­tors’ cool­ing pools.

All of which left the area known as the “Fruit King­dom” in limbo.

It is as­sumed that low-level ra­di­a­tion in­creases the chances of ad­verse health ef­fects such as cancer, but the sci­ence can be com­pli­cated.

Re­li­able data on ra­di­a­tion risks are dif­fi­cult to ob­tain, said Jonathan Links, a pub­lic health pro­fes­sor at Johns Hopkins Univer­sity. And, with cos­mic rays and other sources emit­ting nat­u­ral or “background” ion­iz­ing ra­di­a­tion, it can be dif­fi­cult to pin­point whether an ac­cept­able thresh­old for ad­di­tional, lowlevel exposure ex­ists at all.

In terms of ath­letes and coaches vis­it­ing the af­fected pre­fec­tures for a week or two dur­ing the Olympics, Links said the cancer risk is pro­por­tional, growing in­cre­men­tally each day.

The Ja­panese government has raised what it con­sid­ers to be the ac­cept­able exposure from 1 mil­lisiev­ert to 20 mil­lisiev­erts per year. Along with this ad­just­ment, of­fi­cials have de­clared much of the re­gion suitable for habi­ta­tion, lifting evac­u­a­tion or­ders in nu­mer­ous mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties. Hous­ing sub­si­dies that al­lowed evac­uees to live else­where have been dis­con­tin­ued.

But some towns re­main nearly empty.

“Peo­ple are re­fus­ing to go back,” said Kat­suya Hi­rano, a UCLA as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor of his­tory who has who has spent years col­lect­ing in­ter­views for an oral his­tory. “Es­pe­cially fam­i­lies with children.”

Their hes­i­tancy does not sur­prise Cleve­land. Though re­search has led the Tem­ple pro­fes­sor to be­lieve con­di­tions are safe, he knows that res­i­dents have lost faith in the au­thor­i­ties.

“That horse has left the barn,” he said. “It’s not com­ing back.”

With in­fra­struc­ture re­pairs con­tin­u­ing through­out the re­gion, evac­uee Akiko Mori­matsu has a skep­ti­cal view of the Tokyo 2020 cam­paign.

“They have called these the ‘Re­con­struc­tion Games,’ but just be­cause you call it that doesn’t mean the re­gion will be re­cov­ered,” Mori­matsu said.

Con­cerns about ra­di­a­tion prompted her to leave the Fukushima town of Koriyama, out­side the manda­tory evac­u­a­tion zone, mov­ing with her two young children to Osaka. Her hus­band, a doc­tor, re­mained; he vis­its the fam­ily once a month.

“The re­al­ity is that the re­gion hasn’t re­cov­ered,” said Mori­matsu, who is part of a group su­ing the na­tional government and Tepco. “I feel the Olympics are be­ing used as part of a cam­paign to spread the mes­sage that Fukushima is re­cov­ered and safe.”

This sen­ti­ment is bal­anced with other forces at work in Ja­panese cul­ture, where the Olympics and base­ball, in par­tic­u­lar, are widely pop­u­lar. Masa Takaya, a spokesman for the Tokyo 2020 Or­ga­niz­ing Com­mit­tee, in­sists that “sports can play an im­por­tant role in our so­ci­ety.”

In Fukushima, a city of fewer than 300,000, col­ored ban­ners fly be­side the high­way amid other signs of an­tic­i­pa­tion.

El­derly vol­un­teers, pluck­ing weeds from a flower bed at the train sta­tion, wear pink vests that ex­press their sup­port for the Games.

Sato, the Fukushima of­fice di­rec­tor, re­mains op­ti­mistic.

“Ev­ery­one’s cir­cum­stances are dif­fer­ent,” he said. “Maybe there will be some peo­ple who come back to Fukushima be­cause of this.”

CHARLY TRIBALLEAU/GETTY-AFP

The Fukushima Azuma sta­dium will host base­ball and soft­ball at the 2020 Sum­mer Olympics in Ja­pan.

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