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A handout photo shows Tokyo Electric Power Co. Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant reactor no. 4 (center) and no. 3 (L) in northern Japan March 15, 2011. Picture taken March 15, 2011. Photo: Reuters
A handout photo shows Tokyo Electric Power Co. Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant reactor no. 4 (center) and no. 3 (L) in northern Japan March 15, 2011. Picture taken March 15, 2011. Photo: Reuters

Citizens of Bangladesh are concerned about the consequences of the post earthquake accident at Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant in Japan. The reasons are only justified because ‘fear of the unknown’ can add to worries, especially when these relate to health.

Rumour and gossip are now floating around to such a degree that is disquieting for many. I received a text on my cell phone, which reads, “A nuclear plant at Fukumi, Japan exploded at 4:30am today. If it rains tomorrow or later, don’t get outside. If you are outside, be sure that you have rain protectors. It’s acid rain. Don’t let it touch you. You may burn your skin. Lose your hair or have cancer…..” Many cell phone users might have received similar messages.

In the first place, acid rain isn’t the right word; such rain is usually associated with burning coal. The rumours are largely attributable to the conflicting information made available by the media and also the inexplicable lack of authentic information from the Japanese authorities.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) indeed continues to liaise with the Japanese authorities and is monitoring the situation as it evolves. This information is shared through their website. IAEA has classified the accident as Level 4 of the Nuclear and Radiological Even Scale (7 is the most severe and 4 means an accident involving local consequences).

People living within a radius of 20km around the nuclear plant have or are being evacuated. This is a confirmation that the accident as of now doesn’t warrant a global warning. There is still no step towards shifting people from any place further away from that area.

Dispersion of radioactivity follows a pattern. Radiation embedded in parcel of air travel downwind. The prevailing pattern suggests that wind is flowing in the western direction, i.e. away from Bangladesh, in the present case. Moreover, as it travels, the concentration of radioactivity gradually decreases after mixing with a large volume of air. Our risks are, thus, minimal.

Think about the countries lying on the path from the origin of release to our boundaries. Most of these countries monitor the environment on a regular basis and data are shared through the IAEA. We shall definitely be informed in case radiation heads our way.

Bangladesh Atomic Energy Commission (BAEC) has the technical capability to analyse samples of air, soil, water, and others for detecting radiation. Indeed there are some baseline data on different areas of the country. These can serve the purpose of reference/baseline data. I feel that BAEC should strengthen its monitoring activities and, if evidences of higher levels of radioactivity are found, then the government may inform the people accordingly.

We can have indirect impact of radiation as well. Radiation can reach us through different routes, such as dairy products, meat, water, agriculture produce and inputs, fish, seafood, etc. We can keep an eye on such imported items. BAEC has a laboratory in Chittagong for testing the samples. Imports through Chalna and the airports should also be monitored and entry of such items can only be allowed if certified by BAEC saying that the items aren’t contaminated by radiation. The law on Nuclear Safety and Radiation Control provides the enabling legal instrument to facilitate enforcement.

At the same time, we can keep an eye on how the incident at the affected nuclear power plant evolves. IAEA should be consulted for authenticity of information. Speculation can often have far reaching impacts; unwarranted and premature alarm can indeed be harmful and even traumatic.

Dr C S Karim, a former chairman of Bangladesh Atomic Energy Commission, is a nuclear safety expert. He served as a member of the 2007-08 caretaker cabinet.

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