Newsletter -SAFETY OF OUR FOODS AND LIFE-
August,2000 , No.136
The United States Department of Energy (DOE) is trying to build facilities that will be able to safely contain highly radioactive nuclear waste for at least 10,000 years. The proposed site of this facility is Yucca Mountain, Nevada, a relatively dry, desert-like environment.
At a projected cost of approximately $5 billion, DOE is building a set of exploratory tunnels and facilities at least 300 meters below the surface, but it is not yet clear whether the facilities can safely store the deadly nuclear waste. If the United States Congress formally approves the storage of the waste at Yucca Mountain, even deeper tunnels will have to be made and storage facilities built to house approximately 70,000 tons of nuclear waste. The facilities will be monitored by the Department of Energy for twenty years before being are sealed off. The sealed off facilities are then supposed to hold the waste for an additional 10,000 years, although one cannot help but wonder whether these highly radioactive materials can be safely stored for such a long period.
Even With Strong Storage Facilities Radiation Will Leak
No matter the strength of the facilities, there may be leakage over a long period into the underground water supply. Recent studies have found that, despite the arid environment, water moves through Yucca Mountain at a relatively rapid pace, creating a significant problem for those who wish to isolate nuclear waste there.
Nevadans live within 20 kilometers from where the waste storage facility is proposed to be--their drinking water comes from an aquifer that would be the recipient of any radioactive matter moving with water through the mountain. In addition to the direct risk to humans, there is the problems of milk cows raised in the area being exposed to radiation via their water and feed (some of which is probably raised on that same water). There are several models for determining how long it will take radioactive isotopes to move through the mountain. DOE says that it will take at least 500 years to make it to water, while the State of Nevada, which is opposed to the facility, predicts that it will only take 100 years.
While it can be said that the population is relatively small, Nevada has a number of Native American residents and the support of many non-profit groups working together in a movement to oppose storage of nuclear waste at a facility on Yucca Mountain.
President Clinton has admitted that there are problems with the project and has refused to sign the legislation that would give Yucca Mountain the formal approval it needs.
(The original article (in Japanese) includes photos of the inside and outside of the exploratory facilities at Yucca Mountain, and of a protest against the facility by the Native American environmental group Shundahai Network).
The Japan Offspring Fund attended a Codex committee meeting recently (July 5-7) in Tokyo to draft principles and standards for risk analysis, traceability, and safety assessments of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) as a member of the public interest International Association of Consumer Food Organizations (IACFO).
The Codex Alimentarius Commission is a body jointly formed by the World Health Organization and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization to set international food standards. The meeting held in Tokyo was@that of a working group established by the first session of The Codex Ad Hoc Intergovernmental Task Force on Foods Derived From Biotechnology.
Representatives from 21 countries and 16 international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) attended the meeting hosted by the Japanese Ministry of Health and Welfare. The working group is drafting general principles and guidelines for the risk analysis and safety assessment of GMOs as they are used in food.
Continuing the discussion of the Task Force, underlying the debate over wording differences in the main document "General Principles for the Risk Analysis of Foods Derived from [Modern Biotechnology or Genetically Modified/Engineered Organisms]" were huge differences in belief about the potential risks of and ways to deal with GMOs. On the one hand, the governments of major GMO producing countries (such as the United States) and the NGOs that represent those industries, worked to limit the depth and breadth of testing, information, and traceability to be included in the guidelines and principles. On the other hand, other countries (France, Sweden, and the European Community) and NGOs (IACFO, Consumers International, International Union of Biological Sciences) worked to protect the health of consumers and the environment by supporting more rigorous testing, disclosure, and safety precautions. It should be noted that voices from the developing world at the working group were notably few and muted.
Indeed, one cannot help but wonder if frequent, costly international meetings give an advantage to the wealthiest nations and their industries in making international policy at the expense of greater public interests.
The central document, crafted by the Japanese government (on Risk Analysis), was the basis for the meeting, which seemed to advance the overall discussion over how to treat GMOs only marginally. This lack of progress can be attributed in part to the chair's (Dr. Kazuaki Miyagishima, an associate professor of medicine at Kyoto University) apparent unwillingness to engage in real debate over substantive issues. It is possible to think that avoiding really discussing controversial topics was intended to avoid creating new difficulties for the upcoming G8 Summit in Okinawa, which also will be hosted by Japan. Instead, the chair postponed key discussions for later times (such as that of the questionable concept of substantial equivalence) and other forums. Progress was also stalled by the rules, which call for consensus on all decisions, allowing a few countries to oppose necessary safety measures.
Before taking relatively limited input on the secondary document, "Proposed Draft Guideline for the Conduct of Safety Assessment of Foods Derived from Recombinant-DNA Plants", the chair stated that it was in rough form because of limited time for preparation. The Chair also asserted that it would have to be substantially revised by the Japanese Secretariat before detailed discussion could proceed at the next meeting. Interestingly enough, the chair soon assembled a small group of delegates to help rewrite it which consists of the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, and Canada--not the most balanced re-drafting group! Thus ideas presented by various delegations for strengthening the safety assessment guidelines were taken as things for the re-drafters to consider, as opposed to definite amendments.
Discussion later proceeded to France's draft document on traceability. Loosely speaking, traceability is the idea that authorities and consumers should be able to trace genetically modified foods through every step from their source to the kitchen table. In addition to providing detailed information for consumer labeling, this data can be useful in recalls of dangerous products and for studying the long-term effects of these products.
While the majority of countries seemed to agree that traceability is a key part of the process to ensure food safety, the delegates of the United States and to a lesser extent a few others, worked against a detailed international guideline under the guise of questions about its economic feasibility. This document also was not examined in detail; instead such discussion is to take place at the November meeting of the working group.
That is, in brief, what happened from our point of view. It should also be pointed out that discussion on the section on definitions of the primary document on Risk Analysis, which would presumably apply to the other documents, was postponed until the next session, presumably also to defer controversy. After all, discussion of definitions would have and will probably require a thorough airing of the flaws of the concept of substantial equivalence in determining the safety of genetically modified foods.
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