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Radiation a "lot more serious"

March 22, 2011

As Japan continues efforts to avert a catastrophic meltdown in its reactors following the March 11 earthquake, concerns mount about contaminated food and water from radioactive particles released into the atmosphere.

Detection of radioactive particles fuels anxiety over food safety
The detection of radioactive particles fuels anxiety over food safetyImage: dapd

The World Health Organization (WHO) believes that radiation in food after Japan’s nuclear plant disaster following an earthquake and tsunami mid March, is more serious than previously thought, shadowing signs of progress in a battle to avert a catastrophic meltdown in its reactors.

"Quite clearly it's a serious situation," according to Peter Cordingley, Manila-based spokesman for the WHO's regional office for the Western Pacific. "In the early days we thought that this kind of problem could be limited to 20 to 30 kilometres," Cordingley highlighted in an interview with Reuters. "It's safe to suppose that some contaminated produce got out of the contamination zone."

Levels of radiation in milk from farms in Fukushima and neighboring are higher than normal
Levels of radiation in milk from farms in Fukushima and neighboring are higher than normalImage: Picture alliance/dpa

On Tuesday Japan’s health ministry ordered increasing inspections of seafood after plant operator TEPCO detected radioactive elements in the Pacific Ocean near the Fukushima plant. "Of course we must strive to protect people's health and safety, but fishermen in the area are in a catastrophic situation. The entire fishing industry has disappeared," a spokesman for Tokyo's Tsukiji fish market responded to the findings.

There were no major reports of contaminated food in Tokyo, but radioactive substances have been detected in tap water in the capital and some other regions. The government says there is no risk to human health, although it advised residents in one village near the Fukushima plant area not to water from the tap.

AFP quotes Consumer Affairs Minister Renho as saying, "Food products that present abnormal levels (of radiation) will not appear on the market, so please don't worry. And even if you put such foods in your mouth, they will not have an immediate health risk."

Cooling process continues at Fukushima

As the detection of radioactivity is fuelling anxiety over food safety, at Fukushima, engineers continue to work around the clock to restart cooling systems after a new smoke scare at the site of one of the most badly damaged reactors led to the evacuation of some workers on Monday.

Efforts continue to cool systems at Japan's crippled Fukushima nuclear power plant
Efforts continue to cool systems at Japan's crippled Fukushima nuclear power plantImage: AP/Kyodo News

They have been spraying the coastal complex with thousands of tonnes of sea water so as to prevent the fuel rods from overheating and emitting more radiation. An external electricity supply has now been restored to five of the six reactors, 11 days after the earthquake and tsunami. This has raised hopes of a more permanent solution to reverse the overheating, but more work is needed before the power can be turned back on.

Fukushima is the world's worst nuclear accident since the Chernobyl disaster in the Soviet Union in 1986, though so far experts are saying that the Chernobyl disaster was still far worse.

"The measurements of radiation reported in food so far are much lower than around Chernobyl in 1986," Malcolm Crick, secretary of the UN Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation told Reuters, adding, "but the full picture is still emerging."

Reactions outside

Japan exports some of food, mainly fruits, vegetables, dairy products and seafood. There is not yet any evidence that contaminated food from Fukushima has reached other countries, but China’s state news agency Xinhua says the country will monitor food imported from Japan. One of the top Japanese restaurants in Taipei, Taiwan, is offering diners the use of a radiation gauge in case they are nervous about the food. South Korea says it will expand radioactivity inspection to processed and dried agricultural Japanese food.

Japan has prohibited the sale of spinach from all four prefectures near the plant
Japan has prohibited the sale of spinach from all four prefectures near the plantImage: AP

The March 11 earthquake and tsunami have so far left more than 21,000 people dead or missing, with the numbers increasing dramatically. Estimates indicate that it will cost Japan’s already beleaguered economy some $250 billion, making it the world's costliest ever natural disaster. More than 350,000 people have been left homeless. Food, water, medicine and fuel are short in some parts, and freezing temperatures in Japan’s worst hit regions are not helping.

According to the head of the UN atomic agency, the nuclear situation remains very serious but it will be resolved. "I have no doubt that this crisis will be effectively overcome," Yukiya Amano, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), said at an emergency board meeting. A Japanese government official quoted Prime Minister Naoto Kan as saying: "We see a light for getting out of the crisis."

Author: Sherpem Sherpa (Reuters/AFP)
Editor: Sarah Berning