Japan’s food supply under threat as radiation from Fukushima Daiichi spreads

The Japanese government, anxious to restore the nuclear power supply, has also finally ordered stress tests of its reactors, some of which shut down automatically during the March 11 earthquake that devastated Fukushima Daiichi, others of which have not been restarted after routine maintenance and refueling, World Nuclear News reported.

The restarts will be a difficult sell to a public that has gone strongly anti-nuclear since Fukushima has weighed in as the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl, and nuclear experts are hoping that the stress tests – coming later than those that were conducted in other countries around the world following the March catastrophe – will be more substantial than PR whitewash. Germany will shut down all of its nuclear reactors by 2022 and Switzerland will follow in 2035, and Italy voted last month in a referendum against beginning a nuclear programme. Meanwhile, stress tests in Russia have revealed that country’s reactors to be largely unable to withstand any major natural disasters.

A weekend poll revealed that two thirds of the Japanese public are against the continuation of nuclear power in their country, and support Prime Minister Naoto Kan’s suggestion that the country should wean itself off the peaceful atom, Reuters reported.

More than 2,600 cattle have been contaminated, Kyodo News reported, after the Miyagi prefecture – which is next to the Fukushima prefecture –  released figures showing that 1,183 cattle at 58 farms were fed hay containing radioactive caesium before being shipped to meat markets.

As much as 2,300 becquerels of caesium a kilogram was detected in the contaminated beef, according to a July 18 statement from the health ministry. The government limit is 500 becquerels per kilogram.

Prolonged exposure to radiation in the air, ground and food can cause leukemia and other cancers, according to the London-based World Nuclear Association.

Agriculture Minister Michihiko Kano has said officials didn’t foresee that farmers might ship contaminated hay to cattle ranchers. That highlights the government’s inability to think ahead and to act, said Mariko Sano, secretary general for Shufuren, a housewives organization in Tokyo.

“The government is so slow to move,” Sano told the Kyodo news agency.

“They’ve done little to ensure food safety.”

Aeon Co, Japan’s biggest supermarket chain, said yesterday that 4,108 kilograms of beef suspected of being contaminated was accidentally put on sale at 174 stores across Japan, said the Bloomberg news agency. Supermarkets started testing beef after the Tokyo Metropolitan Government found radioactive cesium in slaughtered cattle this month.

The government on July 19 banned cattle shipments from Fukushima prefecture, though not before some had been slaughtered and shipped to supermarkets.

On Tuesday, the Japanese government finally announced it would shoulder the $25 million financial burden of purchasing and destroying the meat and contaminated hay. The government has also directed meat producers to seek compensation from Tokyo Electric (TEPCO) the owner of the Fukushima Daiichi plant, Bloomberg reported.

“Some areas still have high radiation dosages and if you also eat products from these areas, you’ll get a considerable amount of radiation,” Sentaro Takahashi, a professor of radiation control at Kyoto University in western Japan, told Bloomberg.

“This is why the government needs to do something fast.”

Seafood – a Japanese staple – still a concern

 

Seafood is another concern after caesium-134 in seawater near the Fukushima plant climbed to levels 30 times the allowed safety standards last week, according to tests performed by TECPO, Bloomberg cited broadcaster NHK as reporting.

Struggles to test food products

Japan has no centralized system to check for radiation contamination of food, leaving local authorities and farmers conducting voluntary tests. Products including spinach, mushrooms, bamboo shoots, tea, milk, plums and fish have been found contaminated with caesium and iodine as far as 360 kilometers from Fukushima Daiichi. 

Four months after the earthquake and tsunami,, local governments short of equipment, staff and funds are struggling to test all farm products.

The government is considering whether it’s feasible to test all cattle to prevent shipments of tainted meat to market, according to Yasuo Sasaki, senior press counselor for the agriculture ministry, said Bloomberg.

On June 6, Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency said the plant released about 770,000 terabecquerels of radioactive material into the air between March 11 and March 16, doubling an earlier estimate.

That’s about 14 percent of the radiation emitted in the Chernobyl disaster in modern-day Ukraine – assuming Soviet era radiation measurements are accurate. A quarter of a century after the Chernobyl disaster, some 2 million people in Ukraine, where Chernobyl is located, are under permanent medical monitoring.

Reactor restarts in Japan will need the approval of prefectural governors – a politically tricky proposition until safety has been demonstrated as ironclad – and because the checks are mandated at fixed intervals a failure to authorise any restart would see all reactors offline by the middle of 2012, WNN said.