The Fukushima Disaster and the Tokyo Olympics


Nine years after the Fukushima nuclear disaster, fundamental issues remain unresolved. In fact, the “Nuclear Emergency Situation” declared on 11 March 2011 has yet to be rescinded. Many domestic critics saw the Olympics as a ploy to distract from the nuclear disaster. It was concern about the spread of Covid-19 that led to the temporary postponement of the Tokyo Olympics for one year. But the larger question remains: Should a country with an ongoing nuclear disaster be hosting these games?

Nuclear power development as national policy

In Japan, national policy has driven the development of nuclear power. Through such laws as the Electricity Business Act and the Act on Compensation for Nuclear Damage, the government has incentivised nuclear power generation and dragged power companies into the business. Large corporations, eager to partake in the profit, came flocking, followed by the construction industry and the medium and small businesses that worked under them. Even the unions representing workers at these companies became willing accomplices to the nuclear enterprise. Vast sums were expended for publicity, and the media as well as the advertising industry trumpeted the safety of nuclear power. A centralized education system, in which the state plays a dominant role in setting curricula and selecting textbooks, has ensured that children are instilled with the rosy dream of nuclear power.

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These parties spread the “myth of nuclear safety” – that nuclear power plants would be immune to large-scale accidents. Japan represents less than 0.3% of the earth’s landmass, but it is situated in a region where four large tectonic plates jostle each other, 20% of the world’s earthquakes occur, and 7% of the world’s volcanoes are located. Constructing nuclear power plants on such unstable land is necessarily courting danger. Well aware of this, the government chose to locate them not in cities, but in less populated areas. Resistance from these communities was met by state-deployed police power.[i] With no other recourse, they then appealed to the courts. However, the judiciary, claiming that the disposition of nuclear power rested with the executive branch, refused to address plaintiffs’ grievances.

Just as happened in wartime, the state institutions that effected total mobilization of the country have directed the development of nuclear power. Eventually, 57 nuclear power plants were crowded within the borders of Japan. These are collectively known as the “nuclear village”.

The Fukushima Disaster

On 11 March 2011, a huge earthquake and resulting tsunami assaulted the Tokyo Electric Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station, triggering a catastrophe.

At the end of World War II, Japan experienced the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the United States. The two cities were devastated and more than 200,000 people lost their lives, while 100,000 survived but continued to suffer illness and discrimination as hibakusha (atomic bomb survivors). The mushroom cloud released into the atmosphere by the Hiroshima bomb contained 8.9x1013 becquerels of caesium 137, a radioactive material that has devastating impact on human health. The Fukushima Daiichi accident released 1.5x1016 becquerels of caesium 137, as reported by the Japanese government to the International Atomic Energy Agency. In other words, the Japanese government acknowledged that the amount of this dangerous substance released in Fukushima was 168 times that of the Hiroshima bomb. If Japan were a law-abiding nation that followed its own governmental regulations, the contamination resulting from the accident was such that not only Fukushima, but surrounding parts of eastern Japan – an area amounting to 14,000 square kilometres – would have to be declared a radiation control zone and as such, off-limits to the general public. The damage caused by the Fukushima Daiichi accident was not limited to Fukushima Prefecture. It was an accident that brought disaster to a large area for an extended period of time, and I have decided to call it the “Fukushima Disaster.”[ii]

On the day of the accident the government issued a “Declaration of a Nuclear Emergency Situation” and later ordered more than 100,000 people to evacuate from an intensely contaminated area covering approximately 1,150 square kilometres. Evacuation was a necessary measure, of course, but it meant the uprooting of life and loss of home. As people were moved from abysmal evacuation centres to temporary housing to “disaster recovery housing”, the appalling conditions led to the death of some, chiefly the elderly. Robbed of their livelihoods, families, and communal ties, other evacuees took their own lives. There have been more than 2,000 nuclear disaster-related deaths.

The government, moreover, suspended laws and regulations pertaining to radiation exposure, and abandoned several million people to stay on in what should have been a “radiation control zone”. More than nine years have passed since the accident, but caesium 137, with a half-life of 30 years, has only been reduced to 80%, and the “Nuclear Emergency Situation” is still in effect. Many ordinary people, who by law should be restricted from this contaminated area, have had to carry on with their routines.

After the nuclear safety myth had crumbled, the nuclear village proceeded to disseminate the “radiation exposure safety myth”. Of course, exposure entails risk. That is why there are laws and ordinances limiting exposure. According to the International Commission on Radiological Protection (ICRP), the level of public exposure should not exceed 1 millisievert (mSv) per year. The Japanese government, however, has set the level at 20 mSv per year, and has instructed those who were evacuated from contaminated areas to return. Their minimal housing assistance has been terminated. Under ICRP recommendations, 20 mSv of radiation per year is the level permitted solely for occupational workers, who earn a living by working with radioactivity and radiation. The current policy of using the 20 mSv per year standard to authorize the reopening of restricted areas invites impermissible levels of exposure to the public, including children, who are highly radiosensitive.

Perpetrators who take no responsibility

Impacts of the Fukushima Disaster continue to the present day. Who, then, are the perpetrators? Fukushima Daiichi is a nuclear power plant owned and operated by the Tokyo Electric Power Company. Given that TEPCO was responsible for the accident, it is the immediate perpetrator. And yet, on 19 September 2019, the former head and others in positions of responsibility at TEPCO were all declared not guilty in a criminal proceeding.[iii] The reasoning was that there is no such thing as accident-proof equipment and that to demand perfect safety would prohibit the construction of nuclear power plants. The judiciary had played a role in the nuclear village from its inception. This judgment was a bald display of its true nature.

As previously stated, nuclear power in Japan began as national policy and advanced through state mobilization. Even if TEPCO bears immediate responsibility, it was the government that pressed it into nuclear power generation and guaranteed the safety of the technology. It was Liberal Democratic Party governments and successive prime ministers that licensed all 57 nuclear power plants in Japan. But not a single member of the LDP has taken responsibility for what occurred at Fukushima. No one from the Ministry of Trade and Industry – the present-day Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry – which advanced the nuclear agenda in lockstep with the administration, has taken responsibility. The same is true of the nuclear power experts who conducted safety evaluations and issued guarantees that accidents would not occur. No one from the media or the education sector, both of which helped to spread the nuclear safety myth, has stepped forth to take responsibility. All of them have been supported by the judiciary.

The lesson I have learned from the Fukushima Disaster is this: Even if chances are infinitesimally small, once an accident occurs at a nuclear power plant, the damage will be catastrophic. Given that, all plants must immediately be dismantled. The lesson the nuclear village learned, however, is entirely different: However catastrophic the accident, however numerous the victims, no one will be compelled to take responsibility. For the nuclear village that survived the Fukushima Disaster unscathed, there is nothing left to fear. Henceforth, should an accident occur, not a single person will have to take responsibility, and the power companies, with the generous support of the state, will be able to recoup their losses and start turning a profit in short order. At present, they are all at work on nuclear restarts. Believing that they constitute a criminal entity, I have begun to refer to them not as the “nuclear village” but as the “nuclear mafia.”

The Tokyo Olympics as a distraction from the Fukushima Disaster

The nuclear mafia have worked to erase the Fukushima Disaster from the memory of our citizenry. The mass media have all but ceased to report on the event. The schools are providing a “supplementary textbook” to teach children that exposure to radiation is nothing much to worry about. And the ultimate weapon has been the Olympics.

In every era, to avert the eyes of the citizenry from the real hardships that confront them, governments have had recourse to bread and circuses. In September 2013, two-and-a-half years after the Fukushima Disaster, Prime Minister Abe Shinzo won the Olympics for Tokyo by lying that the situation was “under control”. The Abe regime was using the Olympics to erase the memory of the Fukushima Disaster from citizens’ minds. Now, many Japanese have been driven to the brink of forgetfulness.

In early 2020, however, Covid-19 made its appearance and began to spread in Japan as elsewhere. Nevertheless, Prime Minister Abe, determined not to see his Olympic dreams thwarted, underestimated the spread of the virus and tried to ignore it. Domestic infections spread relentlessly, and on 7 April he was forced to declare a state of emergency. The Abe government decided to postpone the Olympics for approximately one year, but whether the spread of Covid-19 will have been contained within that time is unknowable.

In Japan, even as a Covid-19 emergency declaration was issued, the “Nuclear Emergency Situation” precipitated by the Fukushima Disaster was still in effect. Of the radionuclides released by that accident, caesium 137 is still of greatest concern. In 100 years’ time, caesium 137 will have declined to one-tenth of its original levels. But that will still leave a vast area that should be deemed a radiation control zone. The Covid-19 emergency declaration was lifted from all areas by 25 May. One hundred years hence, I will certainly not be here; indeed, even when the babies born today have died out, Japan will still be living under a nuclear emergency situation.

Concern about the spread of Covid-19 led to the postponement of the Tokyo Olympics for one year. As the virus spreads, not only in Japan but throughout the world, the view is growing that instead of clinging to the Games, with their wasteful expenditures, it would be wiser to declare their cancellation sooner rather than later. Given that the Olympics were meant to distract from the Fukushima Disaster, Japan should not have bid for them in the first place. Indeed, it is precisely on the grounds of the continuing tragedy of the Fukushima Disaster that the Olympics should be canceled.

(This article is translated by Professor Norma Field from Japanese. A German translation can be found here.)


[i]Instances of police repression of the antinuclear movement abound. Public hearings on the location of nuclear power plants and meetings for deciding on the surrender of fishery rights have been characteristic targets. The readiness of the police to arrest and detain antinuclear citizens for the slightest offense has led even the courts to acknowledge an “apparent readiness to deliberately repress the antinuclear movement”.

[ii] [Translator’s note] “Fukushima” in this usage is written in a phonetic script rather than in the Sino-Japanese characters used to designate the prefecture. The implication is that the phenomenon cannot be grasped as bounded by a geographic-administrative unit, much as “Hiroshima,” written similarly, points to a vastly larger phenomenon than what befell a single city. 

[iii]Johnson, David T., Hiroshi Fukurai and Mari Hirayama. 2020. “Reflections on the TEPCO Trial: Prosecution and Acquittal after Japan’s Nuclear Meltdown.” The Asia-Pacific Journal, 18 (2), No.1 (15 January 2020).