Fukushima Blast: Are Japan’s Neighbors At Risk?

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REUTERS / Chaiwat Subprasom

An official from Atoms of Peace, an authority in nuclear research in Thailand, prepares to test food imported from Japan before the tsunami and earthquake for radioactivity on March 15, 2011.

A third, early-morning explosion at the Fukushima plant has damaged a reactor’s steel containment vessel, releasing radioactive material that could, potentially, affect the region. As Japan’s East Asian neighbors watch the winds, inspecting imported food products is just one of the ways they’re keeping cautious.

Taiwan: Since the blasts, Taiwan’s Atomic Energy Council (AEC) has been closely monitoring concentrations of radioactive materials in Japan. AEC Director Chen Yi-pin reports that so far, radiation levels in the country remain standard, adding that emergency measures would be taken upon the detection of abnormalities. Deputy Director of the council’s Department of Nuclear Regulation Hsu Ming-te has noted that the day’s prevalent winds make the chance of radioactive plumes wafting into Taiwan unlikely. The council’s deputy minister, Shieh Der-jhy, has reiterated that residents ought not take iodine tablets, the unnecessary consumption of which could have negative side effects. And the organization also intends to increase the number of food inspections at local markets to ensure that goods being sold are not contaminated. Under usual circumstances, Taiwan’s Radiation Monitoring Center inspects radiation levels in 20 alimentary items every two months.

Other Asian nations, among them China, Thailand, Hong Kong, the Philippines, South Korea Malaysia and Singapore, have also said that they will test food imported from Japan. Hong Kong’s Secretary for Food and Health York Chow explained that dairy items, fruits and vegetables will be under particular scrutiny. “In case we detect anything, of course will ban those products,” he said. China’s southern authorities are inspecting import venues in an effort to root out possibly contaminated consumer goods. Malaysia, which imports nearly 48,500 tons of fish, fruit, meat, beverages and cereal products from Japan every year, according to Health Minister Liow Tiong Lai, is also being vigilant. So is the Philippines, though Fe Medina, spokeswoman for the Philippine Nuclear Research Institute, said that “we are not recommending a ban on any food products from Japan and we don’t think it’s necessary.”

Philippines: In Metropolitan Manila, checks for radiation exposure are being carried out by the state-run Philippine Nuclear Research Institute (PNRI). “We’re monitoring the ambient air four times daily and, if needed, our response teams will do checks in other parts of the country,” PNRI director Alumanda dela Rosa told TIME. President Benigno Aquino, meanwhile, has ordered regular updates on the leaks in Japan and the welfare of Filipinos working there from various government agencies. In a news conference Monday, Aquino’s deputy spokesperson Abigail Valte appealed to the public not to spread false information about the “already sensitive” scenario. Hoax mobile-phone text messages that a radiation leak had already spread to the Philippines reportedly caused one Manila university to suspend classes and send students home. And sales of an iodine-based antiseptic reportedly spiked in a number of drugstores in Manila after text messages, claiming to be health advisories from an international television network, said it protected against radiation exposure.

South Korea: The Ministry for Food, Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries reports that it plans to check, with food products, fish caught in waters that may be infected by Japan’s radioactive leaks. “Inspections will be carried out on all products processed after Saturday, when the No.1 reactor at the nuclear power plant exploded,” the ministry said in a statement. “Radiation checks will be carried out once a week until April 30, and once a month in May and June.” Local experts, though, confirm that radioactive leaks are so diffuse that concentrations in plants and animals will not be high enough to make people ill. And the South Korean government has reassured its people that, due to the direction of regional winds, radiation levels in the country have not increased. Thankfully, the radiation emanating from Japan’s nuclear plant is currently blowing out over the Pacific Ocean rather than drifting towards populated areas.

With files from Natalie Tso and Alastair McIndoe