Rice Containing Radioactive Cesium Found In Japan

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Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: In Japan, the government today banned shipments of rice grown near the stricken Fukushima nuclear power plant. The plant's been spewing radiation since it was wrecked by the March 11th tsunami but, until now, the rice grown in the region was deemed safe. Now, it's been found to have high levels of radiation - 630 becquerels per kilo to be exact. The government limit is 500. David McNeill of Britain's Independent Newspaper is following the story in Tokyo. He puts the numbers in perspective for us.

David McNeill: A lot of people would consider the government numbers quite high although, of course, the government says that it's within sort of international limits. But a lot of people don't trust the government when they give these limits. So the fact that it's gone over on an already high limit is worrying people especially when the governor of that province last month reassured people that rice from the province was safe. And you have to remember that this is, sort of, one of Japan's bread baskets. You know, Fukushima was quite famous for producing not just rice but all kinds of fresh food before the disaster. It's the fourth largest rice-producing area of Japan. You know, there's been a string of scares about this sort of level, borderline high or over-the-limit radiation in tea, in fish, in beef. But this is the first time really that it has hit rice, of course, which is Japan's staple. It's sort of equivalent to wheat in America. It's that kind of impact and it is scary, obviously, to people who live on rice.

Werman: Right. I mean, of all the foodstuff to be banned in Japan it would be rice. I mean, the country is all about rice; it's sacred there. There's even an expression that God is in every grain of rice. What will this ban do then to the Japanese psychically as far as their view of Fukushima and the nuclear disaster there?

McNeill: Well, we have to be careful and say that this ban is for one area of one prefecture. It's for an area covering about 150 - 160 rice paddies or rice farms. Although it is an important, sort of, psychological blow to this attempt to make sure that the radiation is not getting into food, it is only a limited thing. I think what people are doing at the moment in practice is... First of all, sales of food from that prefecture and from the surrounding prefectures are down. What people are doing, you see them in the supermarkets now all the time, is they check very carefully where the food is produced and they tend to go for foods that's from the south of the country now, away from that nuclear disaster and from the extreme north, up in Hokkaido. I think they will continue to do that. They will continue to treat the government's reassurances with skepticism. They will continue to hope that... I mean, you have to say Japan is not Soviet Russia; this is not Chernobyl. They really have a very sophisticated medical health system and checking system, and so on. But they will continue to look at these figures with some skepticism, I think.

Werman: What will it do economically to the northeast of Japan which has already been devastated by the earthquake, tsunami and the nuclear crisis?

McNeill: Well food production, as I said, is an important component of Fukushima's economy. Already, food production from that prefecture has been devastated. I was looking at statistics last week, you know, rice sales, sales of fruit and vegetables are down by 60, 70, 80 percent. A lot of farmers have been wiped out and a lot of other farmers are on the border line. There's a struggle over compensation and how do you pay adequate compensation for loss of produce and so on. That's going to be an ongoing battle for the next year and years to come.

Werman: David McNeill, Tokyo correspondent for the British newspaper The Independent, thanks very much for your time.

McNeill: You're very welcomed.

Werman: You can find more of our coverage of the Fukushima nuclear disaster including a series of reports from my visit to Japan in June following the earthquake. That's all at theworld.org.