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The 2020 Olympics, Fukushima and Trust

The recent leaks from the Fukushima nuclear plant demonstrate that the accident that started on 11 March 2011 is by no means over.

When the announcement about Tokyo being selected for the 2020 Olympics came – after the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe made a strong pitch to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) – one of my acquaintances on Facebook reacted with a three-letter acronym that is not used in polite language (Hint: the third letter corresponds to a four-letter word that starts as “Fukushima” does!) What else can one say to the kind of assurances that Prime Minister Abe had offered to the IOC. Witness, for example, his answers to questions by Norwegian IOC member Gerhard Heiberg about the recent leaks in Fukushima as well as the 2011 accident. According to Yahoo News, Prime Minister Abe said (in Japanese, of course): “It poses no problem whatsoever…There are no health-related problems until now, nor will there be in the future…I make the statement to you in the most emphatic and unequivocal way.”

This is problematic on so many levels. First, there is little doubt that there will be some health-related problems in the future, for the simple reason that any exposure to radiation comes with an increased probability of developing cancer and similar endpoints. Based on a “comprehensive review of the biology data”, the United States National Research Council’s Committee to Assess Health Risks from Exposure to Low Levels of Ionizing Radiation (BEIR Committee) concluded that “the risk would continue in a linear fashion at lower doses without a threshold and that the smallest dose has the potential to cause a small increase in risk to humans”. Estimates of cancer mortality based on early estimates of radiation exposure suggest that there would be something of the order of a couple of thousand victims over the next few decades. Still more would suffer from cancer but are expected to recover due to modern treatment methods. By most standards, cancer incidence, even if successfully treated, should count as a “health-related problem”.

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