Radioactive hot spots along the Olympic Torch Relay

At the International Olympic Committee (IOC) meeting in Buenos Aires in September 2013, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe made the grand announcement that the situation at the crippled Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant was completely under control. A bold statement, just two and a half years after the nuclear disaster began in March 2011, especially since the situation was anything but „under control“ at the time. Large parts of Japan's main island of Honshu had been contaminated by radioactive fallout from the triple meltdowns, some 200,000 people had been forced to leave their homes, entire villages and countryside had been evacuated and large quantities of radioactive water were still leaking from the destroyed reactor buildings into the groundwater and the sea, while hundreds of thousands of bags of garbage containing radioactive waste were piled up on land and tanks for highly contaminated cooling water had to be set up around the reactors.

Elevated radiation levels from cesium-137 were measured at 39 sports venues around Tokyo at the time.1 Abe's promise in Buenos Aires secured Japan the 2020 Olympics, but it was also a slap in the face to all those who suffered from the nuclear disaster.

So is the situation more under control today? Decontamination work on large parts of Fukushima and surrounding prefectures has progressed since then, and some food restrictions have now been lifted. At the same time, radioactively contaminated water continues to leak into the sea on a daily basis, a solution to the ever-increasing number of garbage bags and tanks containing radioactive waste has not yet been found, and every storm, forest fire, pollen flight and flood redistributes radioactive isotopes across formerly decontaminated sites.

Just last year typhoon Hagibis spread radioactive particles from the contaminated seabed over vast stretches of coastline and, due to the rise in water levels in numerous rivers, caused hundreds of bags of radiation waste to be carried along with the masses of water. Earlier, forest fires in the mountains of Fukushima Prefecture spread radioactive cesium across the region. Rain regularly spreads radiation from higher regions to the lowlands, and even the annual pollen flight contributes to transporting radioactive cesium from the forests back to the cities. Thus, even in meticulously decontaminated areas, elevated radiation doses - so-called "hot spots" - occur again and again.

One particularly embarrassing example of such hot spots for the organizers of the Olympic Games in Japan was uncovered by Greenpeace at the end of October 2019: in J-Village, of all places, the sports center located less than 20 km south of the damaged Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant, from which the Olympic Torch Relay is scheduled to start on March 26, 2020.

While normal background radiation at an altitude of 1 meter in Japan is about 0.04 μSv/h (microsieverts per hour) and the target dose of decontamination measures is 0.23 μSv/h, levels measured by Greenpeace at J-Village were about 1.7 μSv/h at 1 meter (about 42 times higher than the Japanese average) and up to 71 μSv/h at ground level. Greenpeace warned that radioactivity from these hot spots could also be spread to surrounding areas by wind and weather.2

By comparison, a normal chest X-ray causes a dose of about 20 μSv. A twelve-hour stay at the hot spot in the J-Village would therefore expose a person to a radiation dose similar to that of an X-ray examination - taking only the external radiation into account and assuming that no particles are inhaled or ingested with food. However, if a child drops an apple on the ground, picks it up and eats it afterwards, the absorbed internal radiation can be several orders of magnitude higher.

The international campaign "Tokyo 2020 - The Radioactive Olympics" had alerted the IOC to the possibility of such hot spots earlier in the summer, and in late November received a response from the IOC's Medical and Scientific Director, Dr. Richard Budgett, who wrote: "It is our understanding that the levels of air dose rates in cities where competition venues are located are equivalent to those found in major cities around the world."

Budgett deliberately did not address the issue of hot spots in his answer, nor the possibility of recontamination by pollen, floods, storms or forest fires. He makes no reference to the torch relay, which is supposed to go right through the most highly contaminated areas around the nuclear power plant, but only talks about the competition sites. In addition, he talks about air dose rates, which is the measurement of gamma radiation, while at the hot spots it is mainly beta radiation from radioactive particles such as cesium-137 that plays a role.

Beta radiation, if the radiating particles are inhaled or ingested with food, can damage the body's organs from within and lead to cell death or the development of cancers, among other things. So when the Japanese authorities measure gamma radiation at a height of 1 m above the ground, this ignores the harmful health effects of beta radiation from radioactive dust, pollen or foliage on the ground. Moreover, many measuring stations at Fukushima are strategically located in places that were particularly amenable to decontamination and where no accumulation of radioactive material is expected, whereas elevated readings would be noticeable in roadside ditches, in the corners of courtyards, or at the edges of fields.

Official readings at J-Village in late October were between 0.085 and 0.111 μSv/h, about 15- to 20-fold less than the Greenpeace dose levels of 1.7 μSv/h measured at the same time, or 1,000-fold less than the radiation of 71 μSv/h measured by Greenpeace at ground level.3

Meanwhile, Japan's Ministry of Environment MEXT has confirmed the Greenpeace values and had the hot spots removed by TEPCO. However, even a few days after the decontamination measures, Greenpeace found further hot spots only a few meters away with dose rates of 0.4 to 1 µSv/h at an altitude of 1 meter and correspondingly higher values at ground level. Apparently, TEPCO had removed only about 1 square meter of surface soil around the initially measured hot spot, whereas decontamination guidelines in Japan would normally require removal within a radius of 20 meters.4

Greenpeace, local environmental activists and the campaign "Tokyo 2020 - The Radioactive Olympics" therefore continue to warn against holding Olympic events in Fukushima Prefecture and call on the IOC and Japanese authorities to relocate the torch relay and the planned competitions in Fukushima City to other, less contaminated venues.

Nevertheless, on March 25th, 2021, numerous athletes and children will likely take the Olympic torch from J-Village across the heavily contaminated exclusion zone around the nuclear power plant. An international petition calls on those responsible to overturn these plans immediately and to put the health of the athletes and participants above the interests of the Japanese nuclear industry. The petition can be signed online:!tokyo2020

Dr. med. Alex Rosen
Pediatrician and Co-Chair of the German IPPNW.