U.S. Ports Watch For Radiation In Japanese Cargo

Officials say the facility regularly monitors for any potential source of radiation.
Officials say the facility regularly monitors for any potential source of radiation. Port of Los Angeles

Japan is one of the United States' top trading partners. But both consumers and importers are starting to wonder what effect radiation from the damaged nuclear reactors might have on Japanese products exported to America.

The Coast Guard and ports along the West Coast from San Diego to Seattle say that consumers shouldn't view the cargo that's arriving now as tainted.

It takes about 10 days for a cargo ship to get from Japan to the United States. So, the ships that arrive next week left Japan as radiation first began to leak from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant.

There's little risk that those ships are contaminated. The ports nearest the damaged reactors are closed; that means anything arriving on U.S. shores is coming from farther away.

The U.S. Coast Guard monitors maritime radiation. And so far, the Coast Guard has seen no cause for worry, says Lt. Commander Chris O'Neil.

"I think the first thing everybody has to recognize is that, as the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has said, we in the United States do not expect to see radiation in harmful levels reaching the United States from the damaged Japanese nuclear power plants," he says.

Nor does the Coast Guard anticipate an interruption in trade.

"At this time, we haven't identified any risk in shipping, any risk in cargo," O'Neil says. "But we have processes in place to assure the safety and security of the global maritime supply chain."

The 5,000-mile distance between Japan and the United States is a big help, O'Neil says. The danger of nuclear contamination lessens the farther you get from the accident site.

That's good news to the Port of Los Angeles, the busiest container port in the country; its 43 acres of waterfront handled more than $230 billion worth of cargo last year, and Japan is one of the port's biggest customers. Its ships regularly drop off everything from cars and car parts to consumer electronics.

Chief Ron Boyd, the port's director of security, says monitoring for radiation is nothing new.

"It's comforting to know that this wasn't something that was set up as a result of the events in Japan," he says. "But we have a steady-state system where every container is examined, and we have a process."

That process includes random and scheduled screenings, and another process that's a little more organic.

"Most of the law enforcement personnel, both at the federal and the local level, wear personal devices to detect radiation in the atmosphere," Boyd says.

Even a slight jump on those personal detection monitors triggers extra inspections until the port determines the cause of the spike. But Boyd says those inspections aren't the first line of defense.

"Some of the process, quite frankly, starts overseas, before those vessels start to make the voyage," he says. "So we can also benchmark the levels prior to the ship's leaving its port of departure, and then once it starts to enter our waters."

Both Boyd and the Coast Guard's Chris O'Neil say Japanese ships that were en route to the United States when the accident happened pose no threat. And multiple safeguards are in place along the way to raise the alarm if radioactive cargo is detected in the coming weeks as cargo ships begin to arrive from Japan.

But that doesn't mean people who live near large ports, like Los Angeles and San Francisco aren't uneasy. When people believe they may be in danger, public perception counts almost as much as reality.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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