Nuclear Radiation Hot Spots Found At Starting Point Of Japan's 2020 Olympic Torch Relay

J-Village in Fukushima prefecture. (Image: Greenpeace)

High levels of radiation have been detected near Japan’s J-Village, a sports facility and the starting point of the upcoming Olympic torch relay, according to Greenpeace. The discovery was made by surveyors with Greenpeace Japan, which warns that monitoring and decontamination efforts in Fukushima are inadequate.

Radiation levels as high as 71 microsieverts per hour were found on the surface near J-Village in northeastern Japan, according to a Greenpeace press release issued Wednesday. This level of radiation is hundreds of times greater than what’s stipulated in Japan’s decontamination guidelines, prompting Greenpeace Japan to demand that the Japanese government conduct regular radiation monitoring and decontamination of regions affected by the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster.

J-Village National Training Centre is in Fukushima prefecture, which is located 20 kilometres from the damaged nuclear power plant. This sports facility will be the starting point of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Torch Relay, which is scheduled to begin on March 26, 2020. That J-Village was chosen as the starting point for the relay is by design, as the Japanese government is promoting the games as the “reconstruction Olympics.” The Olympics will begin on July 24, 2020 in Tokyo, some 239 kilometres from the damaged reactors.

J-Village recently underwent renovations, and the facility was used to host the Argentina team during the Rugby World Cup held just a few weeks ago, according to Reuters. And as the Guardian reports, the facility served as a “logistics hub” for crews working to manage and decommission the damaged reactors.

The readings were made over a two-hour period on October 26 by Greenpeace’s Nuclear Monitoring & Radiation Protection Advisors. High levels of radiation were detected along the boundary of the parking lot and a forest next to J-Village, reports Sankei Shimbun. Readings at ground level were as high as 71 microsieverts, which is 308.7 times more than the nationally accepted 0.23 microsieverts per hour—the standard for decontamination—and 1,775 times the level prior to the Fukushima disaster, according to Greenpeace.

Sieverts describe the amount of ionising radiation that can be absorbed by human tissue. Natural radiation exposure amounts to between 2,000 to 3,000 microsieverts each year, so people hanging out near these hot spots would exceed their annual dose in around two to three days, according to Reuters. While upsetting, it’s not excessively dangerous or life-threatening. It’s not until people are exposed to levels between 1,000 to 3,500 millisieverts (1 millisievert is 1,000 microsieverts) that radiation sickness and life-threatening symptoms set in. By comparison, a single chest x-ray yields about 100 microsieverts (0.1 millisieverts) of radiation exposure.

Still, Greenpeace is concerned that heavy rains might spread the contaminated soil elsewhere, such as onto public roads, from which it could spread farther still.

“This could partially undo earlier efforts to decontaminate the public areas in J-Village. From our observations, it is unlikely that radiation hot spots of such high levels re-emerged from re-contamination after the previous decontamination,” Shaun Burnie, a senior nuclear specialist at Greenpeace Germany and the team leader of the survey, said in the press release. “It is more logical that the decontamination was not sufficiently and thoroughly conducted in the first place.”

In a separate Greenpeace Japan statement, Kazue Suzuki, who is in charge of energy at Greenpeace Japan, said the radiation hot spots were found in areas which were previously decontaminated, which he found troubling.

“It is a place where the general public is coming and going, and there are concerns about its health effects, and this area is also the starting point for the torch relay at the Tokyo Olympics next year,” said Suzuki. “This raises questions about the effectiveness of previous decontamination activities, and Greenpeace sent a letter to the Minister of the Environment on November 18 to recommend regular radiation monitoring and decontamination.”

Greenpeace said the Japanese government has not replied to its letter, but state officials have responded to the discovery of radiation at J-Village. According to Greenpeace, and as reported today in Sankei Shimbun, clean-up crews from Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO) cleaned the hot spots yesterday—so it’s clear the warning letter had an impact. Speaking to Reuters, an unnamed official said Japan’s Ministry of Environment “cooperated with related groups to decrease radiation levels in that area.”

Greenpeace is now asking the Japanese government to conduct “immediate and extensive radiological and hot spot surveys in public areas around J-Village and in the surrounding Olympic/Paralympic venues,” among other recommendations.

The discovery of these hot spots represents an uncomfortable truth for the Japanese government. The consequences of the Fukushima nuclear meltdown will persist for many decades to come.

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