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[Editorial] Radiation scare

Traces of radioactive iodine, cesium and xenon believed to be from Japan’s quake-damaged Fukushima nuclear power plant have been detected in Korea. But don’t panic. According to the Korea Institute of Nuclear Safety, the amounts of radiation were far below levels considered dangerous to people.

The institute said on Tuesday that it detected iodine-131 at all of its 12 monitoring centers across the nation, including Seoul, and cesium-134 and cesium-137 in Chuncheon, 85 km east of Seoul. For xenon, the institute first picked up the material at a center in Gangwon Province on March 23 but disclosed its detection on Sunday.

According to KINS, the concentration levels of the radioactive isotopes were so low that there would be no health risks even if a person is exposed to them constantly all year. For instance, the readings of iodine-131 ranged from 0.049 millibecquerel per cubic meter of air to 0.356 mBq. In terms of radiation dose, they were at most 30,000 times smaller than the annual maximum permissible dose, which is set at 1 millisievert by the government.

Given the miniscule amounts of radiation, there seems to be no need to worry too much about exposure to radiation. Nevertheless, the government needs to ease the public’s concerns by providing information on possible health risks and stepping up vigil against radiation.

Radiation monitoring needs to be strengthened as Japan’s nuclear crisis is continuing and the government’s forecast regarding the spreading of radioactive materials from Japan has proven wrong.

The government has thus far stressed that Korea is safe from the radiation leaks at the Fukushima plant because the prevailing winds blowing from west to east would carry the hazardous materials toward the Pacific Ocean. By the time they arrive in Korea after circling the earth, it said, their concentrations would be lowered to an insignificant level.

But the detection of the radioactive isotopes has shown there is a shorter route than the round-the-globe one. According to meteorological experts, it normally takes three weeks for the prevailing winds to tour the earth. But the March 23 identification of xenon was in less than two weeks from the first explosion at the Fukushima plant on March 12.

According to the Korea Meteorological Administration, there is a chance that the radioactive materials might have come to Korea after circling the North Pole. This illustrates the unpredictability of weather conditions and the need to take this into account in responding to the Japanese nuclear crisis.

The need to reinforce radiation monitoring is all the greater given the high frequency of easterly winds blowing from Japan to Korea in April and May. According to Rep. Lee Mi-kyung of the Democratic Party, for the past three years, an easterly wind was observed 101 times during the 300 days when monitoring was done, with 71 of those times concentrated in April and May.

The government should also endeavor to win public trust by providing information on safety issues in a transparent and prompt way. In this respect, it made an inexcusable mistake when it delayed the xenon detection announcement for four days.

Furthermore, on Monday, the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology first denied the identification of iodine and cesium after some news organizations reported about it. It took back its words only a couple of hours later.

The excuse offered by ministry officials was that it took time for KINS researchers to figure out where the radioactive isotopes came from. But it was unpersuasive. The government should always remember that the most important thing is to build up credibility by opening information to the public. Losing credibility is a recipe for disaster.
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