Expert Commentary

The 2020 Tokyo Olympics, Fukushima and Japan’s economy

2013 selection of research on the impacts of the nuclear accident, ongoing safety concerns and the potential economic consequences of the Games.

Sprint race olympics

With Tokyo’s victory in its bid to host the 2020 Olympics, Japan appears poised to triumph over a series of heavy blows. The 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami killed nearly 16,000 people, and the economic losses have been estimated at $235 billion. In the aftermath, the Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear power plant melted down; the crisis there is far from contained and has potential repercussions far beyond Japan’s borders. And even before the natural and technological disasters, the country had struggled through an economic “lost decade” and become locked in a deflationary spiral.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has said that the Olympics win is a confirmation of Japan’s comeback, and investors seem to agree: The Tokyo stock exchange jumped after the announcement, and the government has said that it expects the Games to increase gross domestic product annually by 0.7% to 0.8% over the next seven years, though prior research casts some doubt on the possibility of achieving that figure. Japan saw significant growth in the second quarter of 2013.

Olympic boosterism is nothing new, of course, and past host cities have had a decidedly mixed experience. During the 2012 games, London actually had a drop in the number of visitors compared to the previous year, but those who did come spent more — a win of sorts, but not the one that was expected.

For Japan, the challenges are of a different nature: The situation at the Fukushima power plant — just 145 miles north of Tokyo — remains highly uncertain, and Prime Minister Abe had to persuade the International Olympic Committee that the Games will be safe. While Japan has set up 20- and 30-kilometer “exclusion zones” around the crippled power plant, radiation has no respect for borders: Cesium from Fukushima has been detected in bluefin tuna caught off the California coast, and the ongoing water leaks at the plant are not reassuring. Japan projects that it will take 30 to 40 years to shut down the plant — 2042 at the earliest.

For both residents of Japan and visitors to the country in 2020, concern is understandable. What long-term risks might the Japanese face? What could be the risks of going to the Tokyo Olympics? Will the crisis dampen the economic “bounce” the country is hoping for? Given that the Olympics, the economic woes and Fukushima are all intertwined as part of an overarching media narrative about Japan’s future, the following is a primer with relevant findings on each subject:

Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear power plant, 2011Fukushima and health

Based on evidence from the two most significant nuclear accidents — Three Mile Island in 1979 and Chernobyl in 1986 — the risks for visitors to Tokyo as well as residents appear to be extremely low. Given that the situation continues to evolve, however, caution is merited.

A 2011 study from the University of Pennsylvania published in the New England Journal of Medicine, “Short-Term and Long-Term Health Risks of Nuclear-Power-Plant Accidents,” looks at the aftermath of all three events. For Three Mile Island, no cases of short-term radiation sickness were detected; cancer diagnoses increased briefly after the accident, a pattern that potentially reflected intensified screening. Twenty-eight people died directly from radiation exposure after Chernobyl, and the risk of thyroid cancer was particularly elevated among those exposed as children. “The situation at Fukushima, though still in daily flux, will probably end up ranking between these two historical accidents in terms of radiation releases and health consequences,” the researchers write.

For residents of Japan, getting a better picture of the potential long-term consequences is necessary. A 2013 meta-analysis, “The Effects of Low-Dose Radiation: Soviet Science, the Nuclear Industry — and Independence?” examined the results of 46 studies on low-dose radiation. Together, they showed a “statistically significant negative effect of radiation on organisms,” in particular plants. The researchers note that while the negative effects on human health detected so far are limited, “even a very small increase in the hazards related to low-dose exposures would generate very large increases in risks to populations when exposed population sizes are large.”

A 2013 study from the National Academy of Medical Sciences of Ukraine, “Psychiatric Legacy of Chernobyl: Fukushima Projections,” looks at the psychological impact of the 1986 nuclear accident to better understand how Japanese residents may fare. The researchers, Konstantin N. Loganovsky and Tatiana K. Loganovskaja, find that “stress-related (somatoform, anxiety, PTSD) disorders, depression and suicides, cognitive impairment, cerebrovascular pathology, and alcohol abuse are the main neuropsychiatric aftermath in exposed adults.” Based on the results, the researchers anticipate that the “psychiatric aftermath of Fukushima will be similar to the Chernobyl disaster one.” Social stigma toward survivors is also a possibility, as indicated by research from the University of Oregon.

Food safety

Fukushima has long been renowned for the fish caught off its coast, but given the nuclear accident as well as recent releases of radioactive water into the ocean, concern is understandable. A 2012 study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, “Evaluation of Radiation Doses and Associated Risk from the Fukushima Nuclear Accident to Marine Biota and Human Consumers of Seafood,” looked at radioactivity from power plant and possible health impairments. The researchers, from Stony Brook University, the Radioprotection and Nuclear Safety Institute of France and Stanford University, find that:

Doses to marine biota were about two orders of magnitude below the lowest benchmark protection level proposed for ecosystems (10 µGy⋅h−1). The additional dose from Fukushima radionuclides to humans consuming tainted [Pacific bluefin tuna] in the United States was calculated to be 0.9 and 4.7 µSv for average consumers and subsistence fishermen, respectively. Such doses are comparable to, or less than, the dose all humans routinely obtain from naturally occurring radionuclides in many food items, medical treatments, air travel, or other background sources.

Food grown on land was also subject to fallout, and despite ongoing decontamination efforts, radioactive particles that remain in the soil can be taken up by plants. A 2013 study in Environmental Science and Technology, “Dietary Intake of Radiocesium in Adult Residents in Fukushima Prefecture and Neighboring Regions after the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant Accident,” looked at the risk from eating food grown in the area. Produce consumed included rice, vegetables and fruits. “The estimated dietary dose levels in current study participants in Fukushima Prefecture were much lower than 1 mSv/year, which indicates that the health risk posed by the radiocesium is probably small,” concluded the researchers, from Kyoto University and the national Asahi Shimbun newspaper.

Tsukiji fish market, Tokyo (Wikipedia)Attitudes and Japan’s morale

Given how the Fukushima nuclear accident unfolded — assurances were often followed by delays and denials, and finally admissions — there was a great deal of public anger at, and distrust of, the Japanese government and the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), the plant’s operator.

Research published in 2013 in the Journal of Science Communication, “Public Anxiety, Trust, and the Role of Mediators in Communicating Risk of Exposure to Low-Dose Radiation after the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant Explosion,” looked at the challenges of communicating scientific information on risks due to radiation. The researchers, Saho Tateno and Hiromi M. Yokoyama of the University of Tokyo, conducted an online survey of residents in four regions — Fukushima, Tohoku, Kanto and Kansai — in increasing distance from the plant. The findings included:

Mothers felt more anxious than fathers in Fukushima but not in further groups, and … the furthest group felt the most ambiguous anxiety. Their anxiety derived from distrust of the government and uncertainty about scientific information, rather than the lack of knowledge, although risk communication emphasized learning the scientific mechanism. [Communicators] should provide more information for individual decision-making of day-to-day risk management in regions with different levels of radiological contamination; key issues include improving parents’ perceived control to their lives and easing their tension of responsibility to children’s health.

Attitudes toward nuclear power in Japan have suffered since the accident. Research from Cardiff University in the United Kingdom and the National Institute for Environmental Studies in Japan, “Public Perceptions of Climate Change and Energy Futures Before and After the Fukushima Accident: A Comparison between Britain and Japan,” looks at public concerns and preferences. Prior to the accident, both countries anticipated using nuclear power as part of a strategy to decrease reliance on fossil fuels and reduce carbon emissions. The researchers, Wouter Poortinga, Midori Aoyagi and Nick F. Pidgeon, indicate that that is no longer the case:

The Japanese public appear to have completely lost trust in nuclear safety and regulation, and have become less acceptive of nuclear power even if it would contribute to climate change mitigation or energy security. In Japan the public are now less likely to think that any specific energy source will contribute to a reliable and secure supply of energy.

The attitudes of residents in towns that host existing nuclear plants have similarly changed. A 2013 study from Japan’s University of Kitakyushu published in Energy Policy, “A Case Study of Economic Incentives and Local Citizens’ Attitudes Toward Hosting a Nuclear Power Plant in Japan: Impacts of the Fukushima Accident,” found that attitudes had become more negative, even about the financial and infrastructure compensation received. Such compensation was increasingly seen as being the equivalent of a bribe, particularly reduced electricity bills.

A 2013 study from University of Adelaide and the South Australian Research and Development Institute, “Evaluating Options for the Future Energy Mix of Japan After the Fukushima Nuclear Crisis,” looks at possible pathways moving forward. Four options were evaluated: a nuclear-free path; or three scenarios with 10% to 35% of power produced by nuclear, with the balance made up by renewable energy and fossil fuels. Factors taken into account included energy costs, greenhouse-gas emissions, air and water pollution, radioactive waste and safety issues. The researchers, Sanghyun Hong, Corey J.A. Bradshaw and Barry W. Brook, had five primary conclusions:

(i) The nuclear-free scenario has more negative impacts than the current condition, (ii) to meet the greenhouse-gas-emission guidelines, more than 35% nuclear power supply is essential, (iii) to minimize accident risk, or possible fatalities from electricity generation, fossil fuels should be avoided rather than nuclear power, (iv) despite restoration and compensation costs, a higher penetration of nuclear power will lead to cheaper levelised costs of energy, and (v) the less that nuclear power is used, the lower will be the sustainability of the future Japanese energy system.

The researchers note that their paper doesn’t address public fears of nuclear power and radiation, a not-inconsiderable issue. They also point to the need to improve nuclear-power safety mechanisms and management culture.

The confidence of Japanese investors in nuclear power was also deeply affected by the crisis, as a 2013 paper in Applied Economics reveals. The researchers found “lingering effects of the accident on the shares of alternative electric utilities. Japanese utilities were hit the hardest and the shock seems to be long-lasting.”

Beijing Olympics (Wikipedia)Olympic economic benefits?

Prime Minister Abe and other Japanese politicians have stated that they expect a significant economic boost from the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Researchers from Leeds Metropolitan University and Bournemouth University, both in the United Kingdom, examined the case of the Beijing Olympics. The study, “Modelling the Economic Impact of Sports Events: The Case of the Beijing Olympics,” was published in Economic Modelling in 2013. The researchers, ShiNa Li, Adam Blake and Rhodri Thomas, find that the games brought economic benefits, but that they were relatively small compared to the size of the Chinese economy:

The Beijing Olympics were estimated in this paper to have brought $119 million and $59 million of welfare gains [respectively] from Olympic international and national visitors in 2008…. The real gross domestic product (GDP) in Beijing was $178 billion for 2008; the Olympic impact only accounts for 0.1% of the total GDP in Beijing. Understandably, the larger the economy of the host city (and country), the smaller the economic impact from holding a large event as a percentage of the economy as a whole.

Other studies that touch on this subject include “The Olympic Games and the Improvement of Economic Well Being” and “Olympic News and Attitudes Towards the Olympics: A Compositional Time-Series Analysis of How Sentiment Is Affected by Events.”

Also of interest is “Political Pressure on the Bank of Japan: Interference or Accountability?” a 2013 paper from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. It explores the macroeconomic stimulus efforts of the current Japanese government, in particular the possible role of political pressure in the announcement by the Bank of Japan that it would raise its target inflation rate from 1% to 2%.

Keywords: nuclear power, renewable energy, sports, Asia, China

About The Author