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Editorial: Latest Radiation-Tainted Rice Case Shows Gov't Must Better Safety Measures

 

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Rice harvested this fall in the city of Fukushima's Onami district registered radioactive cesium levels of 630 becquerels per kilogram, exceeding the government limit of 500 becquerels. The government has since ordered Fukushima Prefecture to ban shipments of rice from the area.

As none of the rice samples from Onami that had been tested before and after harvest were found to have radiation levels above the maximum limit, the rice had previously been cleared for distribution. In other words, had rice farmers not submitted samples for voluntary testing, it was possible that the rice could have reached the market. To protect the public, the government must get to the bottom of what caused such highly concentrated radioactive contamination, and establish a more reliable testing system.

After the nuclear crisis in Fukushima began, the government restricted rice planting in no-entry zones and other areas for the year, and additionally implemented a two-step, pre-harvest and post-harvest testing system in 17 prefectures to prevent the distribution of radiation-tainted rice. In the latest case, however, contaminated rice slipped through government safeguards. http://mdn.mainichi.jp/perspectives/news/20111118p2a00m0na001000c.html

Based on preliminary rice test results, some areas are designated "priority testing areas" that require close monitoring of rice for high concentrations of radiation. The designation, however, only requires further testing of one sample of rice for every 15 hectares of rice paddy, which is perfunctory and requires revision.

In September, rice produced in the Fukushima Prefecture city of Nihonmatsu's Obama district was found in a preliminary test to have radiation levels exceeding the maximum limit. A month later, the Fukushima Prefectural Government compiled a mid-term report saying that the radioactive contamination found in Obama rice was "an extremely rare" phenomenon, attributing it to a combination of various factors such as the conditions of the soil and rice plants, as well as other environmental factors.

However, the case of Onami rice resembles that of Obama rice in that it was found to have highly concentrated levels of radiation. As such, isn't it too soon to conclude that occurrences of heavily contaminated rice -- like radiation hot spots -- are "extremely rare?"

Situated in the mountains, the rice paddies in Obama used mountain runoff as their water source, and some experts say that high concentrations of cesium could have come from this runoff. The paddies in Onami are located in hollows and make use of river water as well, with some suggesting that radioactive materials in the surrounding environment could have accumulated in the water.

To protect consumers, it would be best to test all rice for radiation contamination. If that is unrealistic, the government at the very least should run more finely tuned tests on rice grown under conditions and environments resembling those in the cities of Fukushima and Nihonmatsu before they reach consumers.

In addition, there is an urgent need for the government to pinpoint the cause of contamination. Knowing that will allow us to sort out which areas should be given testing and decontamination priority, as well as whether or not rice can be planted next year.

Meanwhile, despite a rice crop index similar to that of other years, rice prices have remained high due to lacking supply. The latest case may drive this trend even further, especially among rice produced in western Japan, far from the Fukushima power plant. The government must keep a watchful eye to ensure safety and fair prices for the public.

(Mainichi Japan) November 18, 2011

 

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