2011 Worlds.  Should the Show Go On?

With one week to go before the 2011 World Figure Skating Championship are scheduled to begin in Tokyo, Japan in the aftermath of one of the worst natural disasters in Japanese history, the ISU has the difficult decision to make whether to hold, move or cancel the 2011 Championships.  At this point the only statement from the ISU expresses the belief that local conditions in Tokyo will permit the regular conduct of the championships.

The video of Tokyo skyscrapers swaying like trees in the wind were awe inspiring, and terrifying to many.  It was a testament to the immense power of this earthquake, and also the engineering of these modern building which performed exactly as they were designed to perform.  Power and water were cut off to many households in the Tokyo area, but is now being restored.  Transportation was interrupted but is now restored.  From a practical point of view, there is no reason the Championships could not be held on schedule.  The arena and hotels are safe; and travel to, from, and at the competition will be back to "normal."  Practical -- but insensitive?

The coastal areas of Japan north of Tokyo are wrecked.  The death toll is likely to rise to the tens of thousands as the cleanup progresses.  Hundreds of thousands are displaced.  Millions are without power or running water, and many will remain so for an extended period of time.  Would holding the Championships be the height of insensitivity or would it offer a healing moment?  Should the economic benefit to the Tokyo area be part of the decision?  Judging by the comments on skating chat boards and comment to news articles about the Championships, the sentiment of skating fans seems strongly in favor of not holding the competition in Tokyo at this time.

Three nuclear power plants were damaged in the tsunami and its aftermath.  Each plant has multiple nuclear reactors in individual containment buildings.  As of Sunday evening, two reactors at one of these plants are in danger of meltdown or partial meltdown.  The core of one of these has probably already partially melted and the steps being taken to control the two reactors at risk are intended to minimize the extent of the meltdowns and not to save the reactors.  Whatever happens next, those two units will never operate again. 

In a partial meltdown, the interior core of the reactor is destroyed, but the reactor vessel is not.  This is what happened at Three Mile Island.  The reactor interior is destroyed but any radioactive release is likely to be minimal and of short duration.  In a partial meltdown the radioactive fuel remains within the reactor vessel.  Even the explosion of one of the reactor buildings at the Fukushima plant did not release radioactive material from the reactor.

In a full melt down, not only does the reactor core melt, but so does the reactor vessel.  As the molten material escapes and spreads, the building floor and earth beneath will melt.  The end result will be a pile of hot exposed wreckage melted into the earth with no radiation shielding where the reactor used to be.  (No, it does not melt down to the center of the earth like in the China Syndrome.)

The escape of radiation from a full meltdown will be substantial.  Some fusion byproducts are gaseous and go airborne.  Potential fires can vaporize radioactive material that also goes airborne, while other radioactive isotopes can be dissolved and seep into water.  Since the Fukushima plant is a coastal facility, much of the radiation may end up in the ocean or blown out to sea, but depending on wind patterns, a large area around the plant would have to be evacuated.  The radiation effects of Chernobyl were felt hundreds of miles away; however, the Chernobyl reactor did not have a containment vessel and exploded, which is not the case for the Japanese reactors, nor do the Japanese reactors use graphite which burned at Chernobyl for several days.   At this point, reports from Japan indicate a full meltdown is an extremely remote possibility.  The cleanup of a full meltdown is time consuming, dangerous and expensive and a meltdown at one reactor might make controlling and working on the remaining nearby reactors difficult, if impossible. Tokyo is 170 miles from the reactors at risk.

Moving a competition of this magnitude on a week or two notice would be an immense challenge.  Most arenas in the world do not have a ten day block of time available on several months notice, no less a week or two.  Originally Nagano was chosen for the site of Worlds, but was later changed to Tokyo after the competition was awarded by the ISU.  Putting together an organization to carry out the competition on a moments notice would also be challenging, but not impossible.  Referring again to the chat boards, the sense of skating fans seems to be that holding the competition next week in another place would be nearly as insensitive as holding it in Tokyo, and insensitive to the Japanese skaters who would be otherwise competing.

At this point, the Japanese skating federation has not expressed what they think is appropriate -- not what they can do, but what they think is appropriate.  Our view is that the JSF and the government of Japan should make this call without outside influence from the ISU.  They know best the mood and emotions of their people, and can best decide if holding the competition now or the near future would be a healing or hurtful decision.   Our view is that if the competition is moved,  it should be held in Japan at a time and place the JSF feels is appropriately respectful.

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Copyright 2011 by George S. Rossano