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British Columbia should keep an eye on the Fukushi­ma disaster


This week, Japanese authorities released terrifying new information about radiation leaking into the Pacific Ocean from a damaged nuclear plant in Fukushima. On Sunday, the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) said radiation levels near a water storage tank at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant were 18 times higher than previously reported—enough to kill a person in a few hours. Then on Wednesday, radiation levels jumped another 20 percent in the same spot. And most recently, South Korea banned all fish imports from the Fukushima region.

TEPCO, the operator of the Fukushima plant that was damaged during a 9.0 magnitude earthquake and tsunami in March 2011, also admitted about 300 tonnes of contaminated groundwater is currently flowing into the Pacific Ocean every day. Japan’s nuclear watchdog increased the severity of the ongoing leak from level one (an “anomaly”) to level three (a “serious incident”).

“It’s not going to be the last, and probably not the worst,” Dr. Erica Frank says of the latest incident. Frank is a professor of population and public health at UBC’s medical school and a past president of Physicians for Social Responsibility. She says decommissioning the damaged nuclear plant will take at least 40 years. “It’s a problem that lingers for decades and centuries.”

Responding to all the bummer news, prime minister Shinzo Abe announced his government would be more “active” in the remediation process, setting aside 47 billion yen (almost $500 million) for cleanup, including 32 billion yen for the construction of a 1.4 km long underground ice wall to block the water used to cool the damaged reactors from mixing with groundwater.

Assuming this as-yet-untested subterranean frozen wall scheme works—and that’s a sizable assumption since it has never been used on such a large, long-term scale—construction won’t begin until after a corporate feasibility study is completed in March 2015.

Lucky for humanity, the Pacific Ocean is a humongous body of water, and the convergence of currents off Japan’s northeastern coast was able to dilute most of the March 2011 nuclear plume to “safe” levels within four months. While some fish and water testing has shown an increase in cesium levels in North America, none have been anywhere near the 1000 bq/kg considered dangerous in Canada.

However, as this disaster drags on, with no containment in sight, Frank says Canada’s food inspection agency (CFIA) needs to be more vigilant in its reporting on radiation levels in Pacific seafood. “In B.C. there is some monitoring and publication of radiation levels of foods being brought in from Japan, but there is no publication of radiation levels of food being caught from our shores,” says Frank, adding the CFIA’s last report on the subject was released in March 2012.

The CFIA first tested fish samples off the B.C. coast three months after the 2011 disaster. They repeated tests on migratory fish in August 2011 and again in February 2012. All results were below Canada’s “actionable limit” of 1000 bq/kg and therefore was “no risk” to the public. (A bq or “becquerel” is a unit of radioactivity equal to one nuclear disintegration per second).

A media rep at the CFIA assured me testing was still ongoing, they’re just not making the results available to the public. “While continuing to monitor the situation, at this point in time the CFIA does not see the need to adjust our food safety controls,” Elena Koutsavakis from the CFIA wrote in an email Thursday. “Based on our ongoing assessment, food safety controls would be adjusted, if warranted, to maintain the safety of Canada’s food supply.”

“We shouldn’t have to guess,” Frank says of the information gap. “I’m starting with a group of other scientists and public health folks to form a group that will be doing some sampling on our own and publishing the results.”

Frank says funding for the radiation testing is uncertain, but it’ll get done somehow, she hopes. “We’re all putting in what we can because we think these data ought to be known.”

Both the CFIA and B.C.’s Ministry of Health said any long-term radiation testing of Canada’s Pacific coast was the responsibility of Health Canada, not food inspectors.

“The Government of B.C. recognizes that people may have concerns about radiation levels affecting British Columbians,” wrote Dr. Bonnie Henry of the B.C. Centre for Disease Control in a prepared statement. “It’s important to remember that there is always a small amount of background radiation in the environment … all testing to date has indicated that the amount of radiation in products and fish species is below the level where there would be any impact on human health.”

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