Towards the end of last week, it looked like the Japanese had been able to get their troubled nuclear reactors under control.
Now, though fears of a full meltdown seem reduced, a few of the reactors are still spewing out dangerous levels of radiation. That in turn is naturally slowing progress in taking further action to mitigate the damage, as workers are unable to get close to the reactors. Contaminated water inside Unit 2 at the Fukushima plant has tested at radiation levels some 100,000 times normal amounts, plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co. said.
TEPCO officials at one point Sunday said that radiation in leaking water in Unit 2 was 10 million times above normal -- an apparent spike that sent employees fleeing. They later corrected the number to 100,000 times above normal, still very high but far better than the earlier results.
This naturally is leading to growing concern about radiation spreading from the reactor site to elsewhere in Japan and the rest of the world. Faint traces of radiation are being reported from many areas. The Japanese government has already banned the use of milk and some other agricultural products produced in the Fukushima the region.
Concerns about radiation have already disrupted commercial shipping, with carrier line Hapag Lloyd AG halting services to Tokyo, the Japanese government barring vessels from within 30 kilometers (19 miles) of the plant and overseas authorities scanning cargos. One cargo vessel was rejected by a port in China last week because of “abnormal” radiation levels after passing more than 120 kilometers off the coast of the Fukushima prefecture.
We all know in even greater relief now the connections and interdependence of the global supply chain, with some US auto plants now stopping some production because they cannot get parts from Japanese suppliers that have closed their own factories for now.
So what would happen if the level of radiation release from the reactors in Japan gets worse? Would consumers and business be so concerned about possible contamination that imports from Japan might be banned in some countries, leading to a collapse of the Japanese economy and havoc for many in the West?
Suppose some countries, such as the US, implemented such a ban temporarily, while others, say Korea, did not. That would likely mean some products exported from South Korea to the US or elsewhere would contain Japanese components that consumers may fear are radioactive.
It may sound silly, but at its most extreme scenario, it could mean ports and even companies themselves would need to deploy advanced radiation detection systems to ensure their employees and their customers that nothing coming in has been contaminated. There are such systems at the ports today to detect possible terrorist activity, but I do not know if they are sufficient to tell whether there is some radiation coming from the muffler on a Toyota.
Where this could get really interesting is if some products/components have very small levels of radiation on them that are deemed "safe" by experts, but which consumers won't want to touch or be near regardless of how low the levels are. I do not expect companies would try to push products with "safe" levels of radiation on worried customers.
I was with a small group last week, and we were joking that some large retailers would add "radiation checker" systems in their stores right next to the "price checker" stations where you go up and scan the UPC bar code to make sure you know the item's price. A handy self-service Geiger counter could let you know if the product is radioactive.
It's kind of a funny thought, but of course the supply chain would have stopped the product before it ever reached the store shelf - I think.
Still, given the complexity of the supply chain in terms of embedded components, and the likely public rejection of anything that has any radiation on it no matter how small the levels, I think this is a scenario companies ought to be looking at right now, and clearly so if the level of radiation release in Japan gets any worse.