A new study has concluded that food in Japan will be contaminated by low-level radioactivity for decades to come following the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster.
Researchers from the UK and Japan combined to show that radiation levels may pose a threat to health on foodstuffs such as mushrooms, game animals and new shoots of edible plants, where contamination levels remain high.
The scientists’ predictions on the effect of the Japanese disaster on food are based entirely on a legacy of data on radioactive pollution in the environment after decades of nuclear testing worldwide.
“The world’s deadliest nuclear weapons tests during the Cold War have yielded one benefit: a better understanding of how radioactivity contaminates the environment,” said Professor Jim Smith of University of Portsmouth’s School of Earth and Environmental Studies, who headed the research alongside Keiko Tagami from Japan’s National Institute of Radiological Sciences.
Smith and Tagami’s research team made their predictions on the effects of contamination on the Japanese diet by analyzing thousands of measurements collected over 50 years of nuclear weapons testing.
And while data from Chernobyl was also analyzed due to a small amount of radiocaesium reaching Japan from the Ukraine in the aftermath of the 1986 nuclear accident there, no on-the-ground research in Fukushima itself was undertaken for the study.
In addition, no mention is made about the effect on marine life by the millions of tons of contaminated ground water that has made its way into the Pacific Ocean from the Fukushima No.1 Nuclear Power Plant, which experienced multiple explosions and meltdowns followng the devastating earthquake and tsunami that rocked northern Japan in March 2011.
Predictably, perhaps, while the results showed that some foodstuffs should be avoided for many years to come, it also revealed that radiation in the average diet was not high enough to pose a serious risk to health.
“Hundreds of above-ground nuclear weapons tests carried out by the US, USSR, Britain, France and China during the Cold War spread thousands of peta-Becquerels of radioactivity around the World, dwarfing emissions from the Chernobyl and Fukushima nuclear accidents,” Smith said, echoing a perspective that is well documented by radiation experts such as Robert Peter Gale in his 2013 book “Radiation: What it is, What you need to know.” For over 30 years, Gale has been involved in the medical response to radiation and nuclear accidents, Including those in Chernobyl and Fukushima.
“Radioactive elements such as Caesium-137, Strontium-90 and Carbon-14 contaminated the global environment, potentially causing hundreds of thousands of unseen cancer deaths,” Smith continued in a press release about the paper, which was published in Science of the Total Environment.
The study uses data from the Japanese Environmental Radioactivity Database, which was established to monitor radioactivity in response to the global fallout from Cold War nuclear weapons testing and from the Chernobyl accident in 1986. It focuses on radiocaesium - the most important radioactive contaminant affecting the Fukushima area - in food.
“From 1959-2009, thousands of measurements were made of radiocaesium in nuclear fallout, wheat, rice and in people’s average diet in Japan," said Smith. "This unique historical data has allowed us to evaluate radiocaesium levels in Japanese agricultural systems, which can be used to inform predictions of the long-term consequences of food chain contamination post-Fukushima.
“The results show that radioactivity will continue to be found in foodstuffs for many decades, but that current levels are low and will continue to decline over time.”
According to Tagami the study provides evidence to explain to people how contamination levels will change over time. “It gives us confidence that radiation doses in the average diet in the Fukushima region are very low and do not present a significant health risk now or in the future. … But we have to continue monitoring foodstuffs, particularly “wild” foods such as mushrooms, new shoots of edible plants and game animals where contamination levels remain high.”
Katsutaka Idogawa, who was mayor of Futaba, one of the two towns hosting Fukushima No.1 at the time of the 2011 disasters, lambasts such studies. "The information they give is just desk work," he says. "It's being created out of a lab-based virtual reality, not based on any reality found in the field."