The Japaness government and the UN’s World Food Program plan to feed Cambodian schoolchildren fish from areas affected by the massive earthquake and tsunami last year that sparked the Fukushima nuclear crisis.
It’s a move that has prompted an outcry from at least one Japan-based anti-nuclear group, but the WFP says any concern about potential contamination from the nuclear crisis is unfounded and that stringent testing has shown the fish is completely free of radiation.
The food aid, supplied by the Japanese Foreign Ministry’s Official Development Assistance program, provides fish from tsunami-affected areas to schoolchildren in Cambodia, Ghana, the Congo, Senegal and Sri Lanka.
WFP country director Jean-Pierre de Margerie said 124 tonnes of fish that arrived in Cambodia in March had been tested by Japan and two independent superintendents before it was approved after returning universally negative results for radiation.
“If there was any risk with any in-kind food given to WFP, we simply don’t accept that contribution,” he said. “Every time I go into the field, I eat with the beneficiaries, and I plan to do the same thing with Japanese fish.”
De Mangerie said the fish arrived in March and would be distributed in October through a more than decade-old program encouraging parents in poor areas of Cambodia to send their kids to school by providing breakfast as an incentive.
He said the food had been sourced from Hokkaido and Aomori prefectures – both hundreds of kilometres from the Fukushima Daichii nuclear power plant.
But fish for the program has, according to a Japanese news report, been sourced from areas such as Ibaraki prefecture, which at its closest border is slightly more than 50 kilometres from the plant.
Yukie Tokura from Stop! Hamaoka Nuclear Power Plant, a campaign to shut down a plant that operates in an area where a magnitude-8 earthquake is thought to be 87 per cent likely in the next 30 years, has been protesting the ODA/WFP program and said she was ashamed by what she called the unethical double standards of the Japanese government.
“It seems that the Japanese government force ‘the fish that Japanese people don’t want to buy’ on developing countries under the name of International Aid,” she said by email.
The Japanese embassy in Phnom Penh has not replied to inquiries from the Post, and officials at the Ministry of Education as well as the Health Minister have all said they were unaware of the program.
The WFP has said that the results of testing conducted on the fish are not made public because of internal policies.
James Sutherland, international communications coordinator for Friends International, said if WFP had given assurances about the food’s safety, he would assume they are serious, but that it would help if testing results were available to reassure the public.
Sutherland said people would be asking: “Why not give it to other countries as well? Why just developing countries?”
Japanese seafood suppliers in tsunami-affected areas have been hit hard since the disaster, both by damage to their vessels and consumer fears about their fish.
On March 11 last year, a massive magnitude-9 earthquake struck off the northeast coast of Japan, generating a 15-metre tsunami that ploughed into the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear power plant, knocking out crucial cooling systems.
Hydrogen gas explosions blew the roof and walls off some of the reactors, spewing radiation out into the atmosphere.
Ever since, huge amounts of water have had to be dumped on the reactor’s fuel rods to stop them from melting, creating contaminated waste runoff, which can end up in the ocean.
The nuclides that have been released by the crisis that are of greatest concern are Iodine -131, Caesium-134 and Caesium-137.
At unsafe levels in food, these nuclides can generally increase the risk of cancer and accumulate in the thyroid gland, which regulates growth rates.
But near-daily testing by Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare as well as reports from the US Environmental Protection Agency and nuclear radiation specialists suggest that contamination levels in fish are generally low or undetectable in most of the country.
Still, scepticism of government claims about food safety remains high following the less-than-forthcoming release of information about the severity of the crisis.
A recent study by the Meteorological Research Institute found that about twice the amount of caesium than previously thought had spilled from Fukushima Daiichi’s number 1 reactor after the earthquake and that about 70 per cent of this went into the ocean.
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