Japan Nuclear Crisis: Fears Rise Over Food Contamination

Fears that radioactive particles could have contaminated food have eclipsed progress made towards averting a potentially-catastrophic nuclear meltdown at the Fukushima Nuclear Plant.

Spinach: In the province of Ibaraki, a centre of vegetable production, tests found radioactive iodine levels in spinach that were 27 times the accepted limit. Photo: Agota Juhasz/Flickr

The “Fukushima 50,” the group of Japanese workers battling the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl in 1986, has managed to rig power cables to all six reactors at the Fukushima Nuclear Plant, and restarted a water pump that will help reverse the overheating that triggered the world’s worst nuclear crisis in Japan since World War II.

A spokesman for Tepco, the plant operator, said workers had to be briefly evacuated after light grey plume of smoke was spotted emanating from reactor three but added radiation levels had remained stable.

He said: “We are checking the cause of the smoke.” A small quantity of smoke was still coming out nearly two hours later, but engineers were reported to have resumed work

Engineers at the Fukushima Daiichi facility had been racing to restore power to cooling systems at its six reactors to reverse the overheating that triggered the world’s worst nuclear crisis in 25 years.

In the meantime, fire trucks are spraying water to help cool reactor fuel rod pools. Asked if the worst of the nuclear crisis was over, Steven Chu, the U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu, said: “we believe so, but I don’t want to make a blanket statement.”

But mounting concerns that radioactive particles already released into the atmosphere could have contaminated food and water supplies eclipsed the progress made in the battle to avert a catastrophic meltdown in the reactors.

Concern about radiation has spread to food and Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano, ordered a halt to all shipments of spinach from the four provinces surrounding the plant. Milk shipments from the province of Fukushima were also banned.

In the province of Ibaraki, a centre of vegetable production, tests found radioactive iodine levels in spinach that were 27 times the accepted limit. Milk in Fukushima was found to be contaminated with radiation 17 times that limit.

Sushi restaurants are dropping Japanese fresh food over fears of contamination from radiation released by Japan’s damaged nuclear reactors, officials say.

“Our guests’ safety is our top priority,” said Sari Yong, a spokeswoman for Shangri-La Asia, which has 71 luxury hotel locations worldwide. “As a precaution, we have temporarily stopped importing fresh food from Japan.”

The Mandarin Oriental International’s hotel in Hong Kong and the city’s Four Seasons Hotel have stopped buying food from Japan, The Sydney (Australia) Morning Herald reported Friday.

“Until the situation stabilizes in the country, it seems unlikely that guests will feel comfortable consuming Japanese produce,” said Sally De Souza, spokeswoman for the Mandarin Oriental hotel group.

However, the Japanese government said the levels were still far below anything that would cause harm to human health. Mr Edano said: “Even if you eat and drink them several times it will not be a health hazard. So I would like you to act calmly without reacting.”

But it is a serious setback to Japan’s declining farming industry. Fukushima prefecture’s 516 dairy farms usually ship 254 tons of milk every day, with annual sales of about 10 billion yen. Milk has not been shipped from the area since the earthquake but was set to resume.

A World Health Organisation official also said the situation was “more serious” than originally thought. Peter Cordingley, the Manila-based spokesman for the WHO’s regional office for the Western Pacific, said: “Quite clearly, it is not what we thought in the early stages. It is more serious.”

“We have seen Japanese people in grocery stores paying close attention to where their produce is coming from, and we think this is a wise practice,” he added.

Meanwhile, the World Bank said rebuilding may cost $235 billion following the earthquake and tsunami which is thought to have killed more than 19,000 people. [via The Telegraph (UK), UPI and CNBC]

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