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TOKYO -- The International Olympic Committee (IOC) is getting set to decide on the host country for the 2020 Summer Olympics on Sept. 7 in Buenos Aires, Argentina, but while the candidate cities of Tokyo, Istanbul and Madrid wait eagerly for the final decision, a dark cloud looms over Tokyo's prospects due to an escalating crisis at a stricken nuclear power plant.
IOC officials preparing for the meeting in Buenos Aires have publicly downplayed the renewed concerns over the tsunami-ravaged Fukushima nuclear power plant despite it leaking more than 300 tons of radioactive water into the Pacific Ocean, sources close to the matter said, but behind the scenes, concerns are rife.
"The IOC have remained somewhat tight-lipped about the Fukushima crisis, but we (Japan) will be imprudent if we thinks that the issues at the plant, just 250 km northeast of Tokyo, will not factor into the final decision," a Japanese Olympic Committee (JOC) representative told Xinhua, speaking on condition of anonymity.
"The IOC and JOC are both downplaying the incident and Tsunekazu Takeda, President of Tokyo 2020 and the Japanese Olympic Committee and Tokyo Governor Naoki Inose have both said Tokyo is still the best choice as the Games' host city, but there's a sense of trepidation in the Tokyo camp regarding the situation in Fukushima," the JOC representative said.
The JOC insider said that it would be impossible for the IOC to disregard the fact that the Fukushima nuclear plant operator, Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO), and the Japanese government have failed to contain a leak at the crippled plant, leading to the Japanese nuclear energy watchdog mulling to raise the incident level from one to three on the international scale that measures the severity of nuclear accidents.
The current crisis marks the highest crisis level since the reactors melted down after the massive tsunami wiped out key cooling functions at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear facility in March 2011 and the current leak is the fifth-largest since the tsunami hit and the worst since last year.
Adding to the dark cloud looming over Tokyo's bid to host the Games, the government has blasted TEPCO's handling of the situation and the utility's consistent and intentional delays in releasing information to them, the Japanese public and the global community, sparking increasing concern both at home and abroad.
As the TEPCO struggles to control the crisis, Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary, Yoshihide Suga, said that it was intolerable to allow radioactive water to flow freely from the plant and into the Pacific Ocean and lambasted the utility for failing to maintain the physical integrity of the leaking tank.
Suga said that the government will do it all it can to help the embattled utility resolve the ongoing disaster as soon as possible, but since the March disaster, faith in both TEPCO and the government's ability to disseminate timely and accurate information to the global community, as well as their ability to effectively and definitively contain the crisis, is diminishing.
Mycle Schneider, an independent consultant and lead author for the World Nuclear Industry status reports, who has previously advised the French and German governments on nuclear issues, said recently that water is leaking out all over the Fukushima site, not just from a single tank, and that there are no accurate figures for the radiation levels.
Schneider said that the quantities of leaking radioactive water is massive and that it is not just leaking from tanks, but also from basements and cracks in encloses, partitions and pipes and as such the actual radiation levels are "immeasurable."
The nuclear expert added that the crisis is "far worse" than the world has been led to believe.
Meanwhile, the chairman of Japan's nuclear authority, Shunichi Tanaka, concurred with Schneider, saying he feared there would be further leaks.
"We should assume that what has happened once could happen again, and prepare for more. We are in a situation where there is no time to waste," Tanaka told a recent news conference.
Global nuclear regulators and independent watchdogs are hugely concerned that massive amounts of water used to cool the reactor cores, which are now being stored on site, may be too much for the tanks' capacities and radioactive elements like cesium and other isotopes such as the highly-mobile strontium 90, may be further released into groundwater and subsequently into the environment.
Around 1,000 tanks have been built to contain the highly radioactive water, but the tanks are at 85 percent of their capacity, with 400 tons of extra water being added daily, raising concerns that the crisis is far from over and set to get worse, leading some to believe Tokyo should withdraw its Olympic bid.
Mitsuhei Murata, a former Japanese ambassador to Switzerland has officially called for the withdrawal of Tokyo's Olympic bid, due to the worsening crisis at Fukushima, which experts believe is not limited to storage tanks, but also potential cracks in the walls of the spent nuclear fuel pools.
Murata in an official letter to the U.N. Secretary-General, stated that TEPCO's radiation figures cannot be trusted and that the lack of urgency in Japan regarding the crisis should be a cause for global concern.
Schneider, himself is also calling for an international task-force to be sent to Fukushima, maintaining that the Japanese have an inability to ask for help, even when they need it most.
Inose, however, is still championing the virtues of Japan and Tokyo as the best venue for the Games and has said that the latest data shows that radiation levels in the country's capital city are the same as in London, Paris and New York.
"Regarding food and water in Tokyo, there is absolute safety and the data is available," Inose said. "As far as hosting the Games, the situation in Fukushima will not affect Tokyo."
Similarly, Takeda has said that his confidence remains high and that his committee would justify being the "favorites" to host the Games for the first time since 1964.
"The country is tremendously excited about our plans and we feel a great momentum continuing to build for our bid and Tokyo 2020 is the safe pair of hands that can be trusted to deliver superb Games in these uncertain times," the President of Tokyo 2020 and the JOC said in a recent new conference.
Tokyo, which hosted the Olympics in 1964, lost out to Rio in the race to host the 2016 Games, but organizers here are counting on the city's financial clout and their immediate access to a budget of $4.5 billion dollars to swing key IOC votes at a time when cuts are looking to be made in Olympic spending.
"Let's have everyone fulfill their respective missions and responsibilities so we can sound off the announcement of '2020 Tokyo' on September 7," Prime Minister Abe said at a recent kick-off event in Tokyo, ahead of the IOC voting session.
However, while the Japanese government and the JOC continue to downplay the growing Fukushima crisis in an attempt to secure the lucrative 2020 Olympic Games, it remains to be seen whether the IOC will pay heed to rising domestic and global concerns voiced by both officials and nuclear experts that perhaps Japan, after all, is not in such "safe hands."