UN proposes reduced limits for radioactivity in foodstuffs

1 kg med blåskjell fra Nordvest-England inneholder 10 becquerel plutonium. Nå vil FN forby den farlige maten.

Publish date: October 20, 2004

Written by: Erik Martiniussen

A United Nations Commission—which brings together the World Health Organisation, and the Food and Agriculture Organisation—has tabled a suggestion to lower current allowable limits for plutonium in food.

If the suggested standards are implemented, thousands of tonnes of British shellfish currently eaten in Europe could be banned because of the reduced limit of plutonium permitted in consumable goods, New Scientist magazine reports.

Lobsters, cockles and scallops from the north-west of England and the south-west of Scotland are so contaminated with plutonium from the Sellafield nuclear complex in Cumbria that they will breach plutonium content limits due to be introduced by the United Nations in 2005.

The new proposal is to reduce safety limits for plutonium in food of one Becquerel per kilogram.

Plutonium discharges
Emissions of plutonium into the Irish Sea from Sellafield have been regular since the early 1950s. In those days, Sellafield produced plutonium for use in British nuclear warheads.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the emissions increased dramatically, until strong reductions were issued during the 1980s. Many claim that the reductions came far too late.

In 1983, a crew from Yorkshire Television discovered a possible shocking effect of the emissions. In the small village of Seascale, 2 kilometres south of Sellafield, the amount of children struck by leukaemia was 7 times higher than normal. The discovery made headlines all over England, and several studies made in the wake of this news have proved other reported similar instances.

The UK Committee on Medical Aspects of Radiation in the Environment (COMARE) though argues that levels of radiation in the environment near Sellafield are too low to account for the excess of leukaemia cases. Researchers are therefore still unable to give any conclusive evidence for the possible cause and effect relationship between Sellafield and increased risks for developing certain types of cancer.

Two hundred and forty Terrabecquerels of plutonium-239 and 240 are polluting the coastline around the Sellafield plant today. The radioactivity has been discharged from the plant over many years time, and is now affecting a coastline of more than 30 kilometres.

29d5bdfe5423e5daf76d82021583e7c5.jpeg Photo: Foto: Erik Martiniussen

Irish protests
Ireland has filed strong protests with the British government against the emissions of plutonium, which has polluted Irish shores as well. However, it seems the protests haven’t had much of an impact in London. This autumn, the controversial plant got permission from the British Environment Agency to continue its emissions of plutonium.

Discharges, however, are much smaller than in the 1970s. In a statement to Bellona-web, the owner of the Sellafield plant, the British Nuclear Group, says it is committed to reducing the discharges from Sellafield. For the past fifteen years the British Nuclear Group has invested more than £2 billion in waste management and in the effluent clean-up plant at Sellafield. The company underlined in its statement that even the most exposed members of the public receive radiation doses that are lower than the statutory United Kingdom annual dose limit to members of the public, European Union limits and government targets.

Discharges to the Irish Sea now contain about 1 per cent of the principal radioactive substances that were present in discharges throughout the 1970s. Still, collective annual discharges of plutonium from the plant are larger than 100 Gigabecquerel a year, more than any other West-European nuclear facility.

Weighty consequences
Even though discharges have been dramatically reduced, increased concentration of plutonium has been registered on beaches surrounding the plant. In the period 1999 to 2001, the concentrations of alpha-emitting radionucleads, like plutonium, have increased at 12 out of 16 tested locations.

The cause of such significant rises is the remobilization of old plutonium stored in sediments at the bottom of the sea around the plant. At some beaches outside Sellafield, the annual level of alpha-emitting radionucleads is measured at 2,500 Becquerels per kilo. New emissions thus increase the pressure laid on an already heavily exposed environment.


There is no doubt that the proposed safety limit of one Bq/kg plutonium in food will affect the Cumbrian shellfish industry. Concentrations of plutonium in mussels and limpets caught by fishermen in the vicinity of the Sellafield plant today are about 10 Bq/kg. In addition the mollusks contain quantities of Americium-241, another alpha emitting radionuclide. Winkles caught near St.Bees, next to Sellafield, contain more than 60 Becqerels of plutonium per kilogram.

According to New Scientist, the proposal to lower the limit of plutonium contained in food takes into account emerging scientific uncertainties about the health risks of small amounts of plutonium inside the body and is in line with radiation safety limits recommended by other international regulatory authorities, including those in the US and in the UK. The UN hopes the law will reduce the long-term risks of getting cancer from eating contaminated seafood.

The proposed limit seems “reasonable” to Ian Jackson, a radiation consultant from Cheshire, England. He pointed out that the nuclear reprocessing plant at Sellafield had discharged more plutonium into the sea than those in France and Japan.

British authorities though are expected to protest against the new standards. The British Food Standard Agency, or FSA, is co-ordinating the UK’s responses, and considers that the proposed guidelines “are not proportionate to the actual risk,” the Cumbrian newspaper News & Star reported.

A final decision regarding the new safety limits is not expected before next year.