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Radiation limbo - Health ministry to decide fate of Japanese bus at port after test findings

Published:Thursday | March 6, 2014 | 12:00 AM
Major Richard Reese

Livern Barrett, Gleaner Writer

Jamaican Customs officials have now opted to ask the Ministry of Health and the Bureau of Standards to determine if a bus shipped from Japan, which was found to have higher-than-normal levels of radiation, should be released from the port.

In January, Customs boss Major Richard Reese indicated that the shipment - one of two discovered in Jamaica with "elevated" levels of radiation in the last 15 months - would be returned to Japan.

Reese revealed on Tuesday that the decision to seek guidance from the health ministry and the Bureau of Standards was taken after the Jamaica Customs Agency (JCA) met with officials at the Japanese Embassy in Kingston to discuss its findings.

He said the vehicle, a Toyota Hiace minibus, was subsequently tested by Japanese officials and found to be within their acceptable radiation levels.

"So we are going to engage the Ministry of Health and the Bureau of Standards this week for them to determine what's the acceptable standard," Reese told The Gleaner.

The bus, which has been quarantined on the ports since 2012, is one of two shipments from Japan that have been found to have higher-than-normal radiation levels in the past 15 months. The other was a trans-shipment container of used motor-vehicle parts, destined for Guyana, which was discovered last December.

Reese said that the container was also tested by Japanese officials and the tests confirmed the JCA's findings of elevated radiation levels. As a result, he said the container would be shipped back to Japan.

The discussions between Jamaican and Japanese officials were triggered by the JCA's concerns about the radiation-testing methods employed in Tokyo.

The radiation levels of products originating from some regions in Japan have become a talking point worldwide ever since the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in which a catastrophic failure at the Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant, brought on by a massive earthquake in March 2011, resulted in a meltdown of three of the plant's six nuclear reactors. The incident sparked comparisons to the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster, which the United Nations has blamed for at least 64 deaths from radiation as of 2008.

The discovery of higher-than-normal levels of radiation in Jamaica came 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 occurring at the disabled nuclear plant.

Assistant Commissioner of Customs Velma Ricketts, who has responsibility for border protection, revealed that the JCA, through a partnership with the United States Department of Energy, had 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 said.

livern.barrett@gleanerjm.com