Don’t plant rice, Japanese farmers told

Japan’s government has announced it will ban farmers from planting rice in soil contaminated by radiation from the tsunami-flooded nuclear power plant, adding to the list of items raising concerns about another food central to Japanese culture.

The ban will apply to any soil found to contain high levels of radioactive cesium, and farmers who cannot grow rice will be compensated.

So far, soil that exceeds the new limit has been found in only two places in Iitate, a village about 40km from Fukushima Dai-ichi, the nuclear plant crippled by the March 11 tsunami.

“We had to come up with a policy quickly because we are in planting season,” said Agriculture Minister Michihiko Kano, announcing the ban.

“Following this, I want to hear the opinions of experts and local officials on how to remediate the soil.”

Earlier in the week, high levels of seawater contamination around the plant prompted the nation that gave the world sushi to set limits for the first time on the amount of radiation permitted in fish.

The contamination levels have since decreased after plant workers managed to plug a leak.

There has been concern about radiation in vegetables and milk and several countries, most recently China, have banned imports of some items from Japan.

Rice grown in soil not found to be contaminated will also be checked and the limit is the same as for fish and vegetables.

The limit for soil used to grow rice will be 10 times higher because of concerns that the rice will absorb cesium during its long growing season.

Japan produced 8.5 million tonnes of rice last year, almost all for domestic consumption. It exported just 1900 tonnes for sale last year. Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan were the top recipients.

Fukushima, home to the radiation-leaking plant, produced 450,000 tonnes of rice and was the nation’s fourth-largest producing prefecture last year.

Yoshiyuki Ueda, a 47-year-old rice farmer from the town of Futaba, where the damaged nuclear plant is located, said he had already given up on trying to plant this year’s crop because of radiation fears.

“The ground is ruined,” Ueda said. “I think it will be a long time until things return to normal.”

Experts say people would have to eat enormous quantities of produce or dairy before getting even the amount of radiation contained in a CT scan.

Cesium is a concern because it can build up in the body and high levels are thought to be a risk for various cancers.

ELITE RESCUE TEAM ASSEMBLES IN TOKYO

Wearing gas masks and baggy gray suits, a special US Marine Corps unit trained to rescue people in chemical, biological or nuclear emergencies held drills yesterday with Japanese counterparts, standing ready to help if needed around the crippled Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant.

The 145-member Chemical Biological Incident Response Force, based in Maryland, is on its first overseas deployment, but it does not signal heightened alarm in Washington about the plant, members said.

It also has no plans to go north, closer to the nuclear plant, where operators are trying to bring reactors under control after their cooling systems were knocked out by last month’s tsunami.

“We’re here to solve a complex problem if called upon,” said mission commander Major Mike Johnson.

The non-combat unit will be based indefinitely at Yokota US Air Force base, just west of Tokyo.

“We’re here to assist and advise the Japanese military and to be a quick reaction force if something really bad does happen. All indicators say it’s not going to but it’s better to have us and not need us than to need us and not have us,” said Master Sergeant Mark Dumdie, 40, the most senior enlisted man in the outfit.

The unit arrived with 32 vehicles and piles of high-tech equipment carried on seven planes. One vehicle is a mobile laboratory in which staff can quickly analyse substances and another can fire a laser into a plume of smoke that can detect toxins, said Dumdie.

“When we show up, we can do everything from pulling people out of a rubble pile to decontaminating and medical assistance,” Dumdie said. In the medical tent, “we can do everything short of open-heart surgery.”

The CBIRF unit was created in 1996 in the wake of the 1995 sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subways so that the US could respond effectively to similar crises, Dumdie said.

The unit was deployed during the 2001 anthrax attacks that killed five people through exposure to letters containing the substance. Team members took samples from the letters and bagged and burned them.

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