Japan's Nuclear Scare
Published: June 2009
Do questions of safety persist?
On September 30, in Japan's worst peacetime atomic incident, a leak at a nuclear fuel-processing plant in the town of Tokaimura -- only 87 miles northeast of Tokyo -- exposed dozens of people to harmful doses of neutron radiation. The U.S. State Department immediately discouraged travelers from coming within six miles of Tokaimura. Now that the fallout has settled, has the danger passed?
Though the official advisory expired in early October, and radiation levels near the site have returned to normal, there does remain a risk of isolated "hot spots" -- terrain that is highly radioactive, explains Dr. Edwin Lyman of the Nuclear Control Institute in Washington, D.C. "It was a very serious accident for people in the vicinity," says Lyman, but there has been "no effect on Tokyo, at least not directly." Contamination at the site was placed at Level 4; Chernobyl, by comparison, was at Level 7, Three Mile Island at Level 5.
A continuing concern is the safety of vegetables and seafood from the Ibaraki prefecture. At press time, many merchants were placing signs on their goods noting where they were harvested, and all major food producers from the area had voluntarily stopped shipping to other regions of Japan. Days after the incident, the prime minister made a public display of consuming locally grown vegetables -- but travelers may want to avoid eating seafood and produce from this region, just to be safe. (Ask restaurants and shops about the origin of their food.) In fact, the Greenpeace organization has found evidence of radioactive fallout in a larger area than the government had described, including agricultural land. "The long-term consequences have yet to be determined," says Lyman.