How Safe Is Korean Food from Radioactivity?

Higher than permissible levels of radioactive materials have been detected in vegetables and milk imported from areas near the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Now there are fears that radioactive particles that have flown into Korea may have stuck to vegetables in the fields or been absorbed into vegetable roots after filtering into the ground with rainwater.

But whether that would be a threat depends on the amount of radiation. "Soil and air always give off natural radiation," said Baek Won-pil of the Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute. "We take in a certain amount of radioactive materials through food every day, although many of us aren't aware of that."

One example is the 1 percent of potassium commonly found in food. Je Mu-sung, a professor of nuclear engineering at Hanyang University, said, "The radiation detected in Korea recently is very low. You'd have to eat contaminated food for 400,000 years just to reach the amount of natural radiation that we're exposed to through food in a year."

Lee Jae-ki, another professor at Hanyang, said, "During the first year after the Chernobyl disaster in 1986, people in neighboring Sweden were exposed to 0.07 mSv of radiation through food, including milk. That was a mere 1.1 percent of the natural radiation average of 6 mSV the Swedish people are normally exposed to for a year." The distance between Sweden and the Chernobyl nuclear power plant is similar to that between Korea and Japan.

There is also only a slim chance that deep-sea marine creatures will be contaminated, experts say.

Dr. Kim Young-ho of the Korea Ocean Research and Development Institute said, "In a simulation involving the Kuroshio Current in the sea east of Japan, we found that radioactive substances leaked from the Fukushima nuclear power plant will have infinitesimal effects on the Korean coast even if they flow into the sea."

The Kuroshio Current flows east. It is possible that part of the current will flow into the East Sea through the Korea Strait after circulating around the North Pacific. But it will take the current years or decades to complete the circulation.

A spokesman for the Korea Hydrographic and Oceanographic Administration said, "There is no chance that Korean waters will be contaminated given that radioactive materials will be diluted in the Pacific in the circulation process."

"Some warm-temperate water fish species such as squid and mackerel could possibly swim into Korean waters through the south sea of Japan in winter," a researcher at the National Fisheries Research and Development Institute said. "But this isn't the season when they travel in the direction of Korean waters. You don't have to worry about contamination of marine creatures caught in waters off Korea."

englishnews@chosun.com / Mar. 31, 2011 14:03 KST