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Radiation alert - Harmful elements detected at ports in shipments from Japan

Published:Friday | January 10, 2014 | 1:00 AM
Major Richard Reese, Commissioner of Customs

Livern Barrett, Gleaner Writer

Jamaica Customs authorities have revealed that in the last 13 months, tests conducted at the nation's ports have confirmed the presence of higher-than-normal levels of radiation in two shipments from Japan.

The most recent case, according to Assistant Commissioner of Customs Velma Ricketts, came last month when a trans-shipment container carrying used motor-vehicle parts destined for Guyana was scanned at the Kingston Container Terminal and its radiation levels was determined to be "elevated".

The first case involved a minibus imported by a local used-car dealer in November 2012.

"The JCA [Jamaica Customs Agency] has been on high alert since the earthquake affected Japan," Ricketts said in an emailed response to queries by The Gleaner.

Her comments were in reference to the magnitude 9.0 earthquake that rocked Japan in 2011, triggering a tsunami that crippled the Fukushima nuclear plant there.

Commissioner of Customs Major Richard Reese made it clear yesterday that both shipments are being detained in a quarantined area and will be returned to Japan shortly.

At the same time, Reese said the JCA, through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, will be seeking to have "urgent discussions" on the issue with officials at the Japanese Embassy in Jamaica.

He said the meeting will be used to underscore the need for enhanced inspection mechanisms before goods are shipped out of Japan.

"It could be that there is a weakness in the inspection process on that side," Reese surmised.

The discovery of higher-than-normal levels of radiation in Jamaica comes days after Russian authorities barred 132 used Japanese vehicles from entering that country because of "radioactive pollution concerns".

The cars were among a batch of 165 contaminated goods, including motor-vehicle spare parts, that were not allowed to enter Russia.

The Rospotrebnadzor, Russia's consumer protection agency, reported that it was very concerned about contaminated water leaks that were still occuring at the disabled nuclear plant.

Ricketts, who has responsibility for border protection, revealed that the JCA, through a partnership with the United States Department of Energy, has been conducting radiation tests on all vehicles and spare parts coming from Japan.

"We have received sophisticated radiation detection equipment and have been adequately trained," she noted.

According to Ricketts, the US Department of Energy also conducts frequent visits to ensure that the programme and equipment remain at optimal levels. She said during the most recent visit last December, US officials reported no adverse findings.

Reese explained that once the initial test points to the presence of high levels of radiation, a verification test is conducted to confirm the findings.

"Once it is [confirmed to be] outside the [acceptable] levels, they [shipment] will not be released," the Customs boss emphasised.

"There are a lot of things we are doing that people don't know. We are very vigilant," he insisted.

Ricketts underscored that as a standard procedure, the JCA's findings are reported to local health officials.