Radiation not likely to reach Central America, say officials

March 15, 2011

Central American government officials ruled out any immediate impact on the region’s environment from the ongoing nuclear crisis in Japan, but they did say they would remain alert to potential changes that could require “action.”

The 9.0-magnitude earthquake and resulting tsunami that ripped apart northern Japan on March 11 crippled the Fukushima nuclear plant, causing serious damage to the site’s six reactors and prompting global fears of a massive radioactive leak that is already being felt as far away as Tokyo.

“Radioactive leaks at the Japanese plant may actually increase the world’s radioactivity levels, but not enough to become a public health issue [in Central America],” said Carlos Madrigal, of Costa Rica’s National Nuclear Energy Commission.

Constant monitoring of radioactivity in Central America takes place in Mexico, where a specialized lab belonging to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) wires reports to Costa Rica’s Health Ministry.

El Salvador’s environment minister, Hermán Rosa, said that although it is unlikely a radiation cloud from Japan would reach Central America, it could affect the Northern Hemisphere.

“Because of wind patterns, it is possible that [radiation] could affect… Alaska, Canada and the U.S.,” Rosa told a local TV news station.

Rosa acknowledged that Salvadoran officials are closely monitoring events, and would take the appropriate actions if needed.

For now, there appears to be little else to do but wait. “It is very difficult to evaluate,” says Nicaragua’s environment vice minister, Roberto Araquistain, referring to the disaster’s global impact.

“All of this has an impact on biodiversity. Radiation can cause significant changes, so that’s troubling. (…) We’re all waiting to see what the world’s scientists are going to do to prevent this from having a much bigger impact,” Araquistain said.

Japan’s nuclear crisis has been ranked a six on a seven-level scale used to measure nuclear accidents. The issue has raised serious concerns across the globe about potential fallout – and the future of nuclear energy in general. Last week, Germany temporarily shut down seven reactors and announced safety checks would be carried out in the remaining ones.

In a 2008 U.S. diplomatic cable leaked to Britain’s Daily Telegraph by WikiLeaks, the International Atomic Energy Agency warned the Japanese government that its safety guidelines for nuclear plants were outdated, and that there was concern that its nuclear reactors might not withstand earthquakes greater than a 7.0 magnitude on the Richter scale, AFP reported.

A separate cable in 2006 claimed that the Japanese government opposed a court order to shut down a nuclear plant over similar concerns.

The European Commission recommended that European Union members importing food from Japan to be vigilant and avoid importing food that could potentially be contaminated with radiation. Central American leaders are weighing similar measures.

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