Ships called from Japan sparks mixed screening strategies from US, EU

As April ended and May started, ships that had called at Japanese ports post-radiation leaks finally found their way to European and US ports. And what greeted them was a disjointed mix of reactions and confused strategies on screening and decontamination plans.

Tactics ranged from outright expulsion and outside port limits radiation checks, to random spot checks and written guarantees. Noticeable by its absence was a standardized approach.

In Europe, Belgium opted for full checks of the first two ex-Japan ships, with spot checks thereafter, while Rotterdam, Europe’s biggest container port, is screening for radiation while ships are still at sea. Hamburg is partially relying on screening that will take place at transhipment hubs on route from Japan.

As well as at sea screening, Rotterdam has also demanded written guarantees from ship- ping companies that their cargoes from Asia have not been exposed to radiation. “It is up to the shipping company to instruct their crews to clean the containers during their passage,” a spokesperson from Rotterdam sternly told the press.

The US, meanwhile, has been checking every container coming from Japan since radiation began escaping from Fukushima’s damaged nuclear power plant, but has so far found no radioactively contaminated seafood, auto parts or electronics.

It’s a confused picture – port authorities, customs, health inspectors and security staff all have to work together to establish firstly, what level of radiation is unacceptable, and secondly, what to do if that level is detected.

An emergency plan needs to be drawn up, if there isn’t already one in place. Port workers need to be kept informed. And of course, the port needs to address public concerns that contaminated goods and ships are being channeled through terminals.

Indeed, some European ports have openly admitted that screening is mainly to allay public fears, and that radiation levels are expected to be within safe limits.

The Flemish, for example, admit that “no threat to public health or the environment is expected”, while Rotterdam sees its screening as removing the concerns of those directly involved in handling the ship.