In seven years, Tokyo will again host the world’s most important sports event. Also in the news were more radiation leaks from Fukushima. It seems that the past two and a half years spent to clean up the nuclear accident site have been wasted.
Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) has been responsible for the clean-up. Up to now, all measures to seal the leaks have failed, and the situation is worsening. At the International Atomic Energy Agency meeting in Vienna on September 16, experts sharply criticized what Japan had been doing as water contaminated by tons of highly radioactive waste was leaking underground or directly to the Pacific on a daily basis. The IAEA expressed deep concerns over the Japanese government’s and business’s attempt to blame each other and to withhold information.
Against all the odds, an international cooperation mechanism should be set up to maintain the current global ecosystem and to protect health and safety of millions of participants, spectators and visitors coming to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. In my view, US should urge Japan to take more initiatives for containment of radiation and provide the latter with necessary support and assistance.
First, the nuclear disaster is increasingly out of Japan’s control and the country is in dire need of international cooperation. Besides the sea and ground water contaminations, Japan has also found mutant butterflies and mutated food. Researchers have reported abnormalities with butterflies in Fukushima Prefecture such as smaller wings and damaged eyes. “We have reached the firm conclusion that radiation released from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant damaged the genes of the butterflies,” a scientist said. Recently, many pictures of mutated produces have been posted on Japanese websites: five-fingered eggplant, tomatoes with green sprouts from the top and potatoes in the shape of kid’s foot, etc.
Plutonium-238, an isotope more radioactive and carcinogenic than plutonium-239 used in nuclear weapons, was detected in areas around Fukushima. Radioactive strontium-90 was also detected in over a dozen prefectures including Tokyo, Chiba and Kanagawa. According to scientists, ingested strontium-90, which has a half life of 30 years, is absorbed and deposited in our bones, increasing the risk of bone cancer or leukemia. Last month, the Fukushima Prefecture Health Management Survey Planning Committee published a report revealing that among children under 18 in Fukushima Prefecture, 18 are confirmed and 26 are suspected of having thyroid cancer by June 2013. It also revealed that 25 children are suspected of having other cancer cells.
It requires a complex system engineering to handle the Fukushima nuclear disaster. Parallel efforts must be made to seal off leakage — decommission of the reactors and removal of air pollution. The expertise, technology and equipment required for the double task far exceed the capabilities of TEPCO or even the Japanese government. Experts believe that it will take another 10 years only to address the leakage and that it is unlikely to complete dealing with Fukushima’s aftermath before 2020. In other words, Japan alone cannot materialize its commitment to “secure and peaceful Olympics,” and a global cooperation mechanism must soon be put in place. US, as Japan’s ally, should by all means lend Japan helping hands at this critical moment and play a leading role in activating the international cooperation mechanism.
Secondly, US itself is under increasing ecological threats from Fukushima and helping Japan would be a win-win strategy. The earthquake and tsunami in Japan produced at least 4.8 million tons of debris, a third of which float towards North America by ocean currents. Since last year, such debris started to reach America’s west coast. For example, the huge cement structure recently found by people in Newburg, Oregon turned out to be part of a ship berth from Japan. And last summer, researchers in Stanford University found that cesium-134 and cesium-137 arriving at American Pacific coast from Japan through ocean circulation had increased five folds compared to the previous year. More and more Americans now worry that with such strong ocean current, fish containing 258 times the legal limit of radioactive cesium from Japan may well reach their dinner tables. Upon Japan’s successful Olympic bid, some Americans even shared their worries online about swimming anywhere in the Pacific off the West Coast for fear of increased nuclear contamination, let alone Japanese swimming pools. If at this moment US can explicitly express its concerns, it will certainly win extensive domestic supports and build a good reputation in Asia as having a truly responsible attitude towards ecological security of itself and the Asia Pacific.
Finally and most critically, when US talks, Japan hears. The biggest obstacle to international cooperation after Fukushima has been the closeness of Japan. The country had long been quite smug about having “zero nuclear accident”. After Fukushima, people came to realize that since the launch of first nuclear reactor, several accidents had occurred but were all covered up by the enterprise and regulatory authority together. With Fukushima nuclear disaster continuing, Japan still goes all out to cover up the real situation and refuses to seek assistance from the international community. As the selected host of the 2020 Olympics, Japan now must take up the ecological responsibility for its citizens, neighbors and all mankind. The US, Japan’s ally and big brother, on the other hand, should urge Japan to disclose information in a timely manner, accept international help and try its best to contain nuclear contamination. If the US takes the lead, many in the international community will follow, such as China, ROK and Russia, so as to help Japan hosting the Olympics free of threats from nuclear pollution.
In short, in face of the maritime Chernobyl crisis caused by the Japanese nuclear disaster, if US, who is “pivoting to Asia”, can hold the banner of ecological protection high and prove with concrete actions that its return is constructive, it will be able to kill three birds with one stone: its own ecological interests, a moral high ground and less international suspicion towards its intentions.
Jin Ying is a Research Associate at the Institute of Japanese Studies at CASS.