Alert over ship from Fukushima sparks quarantine checks

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 26 March, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 26 March, 2011, 12:00am

Ships seeking to enter Hong Kong that began their voyage within 80 kilometres of Japan's Fukushima prefecture, site of a nuclear power plant crippled by a March 11 earthquake and tsunami, are to be quarantined for radiation checks off Lamma Island.

The government announced the move after Hong Kong hospitals were placed on alert when the local agent of a Maltese-registered container ship asked late on Thursday for radiation checks of its 27 crew.

The captain of the Maltese-registered CMA CGM Moliere, which began its voyage in Yokohama, Japan, later said the crew were fine. The alert was called off.

Another cargo ship, the MOL Presence, was earlier detained in Xiamen, Fujian province, after excessive radiation was detected. And two Japanese tourists were found contaminated in Wuxi, Jiangsu.

A Marine Department spokesman said a quarantine zone had been designated south of Lamma. 'It will be a place for the ship to moor so that more inspections can be carried out,' the spokesman said. 'But so far we have not found any ship originating from the 80-kilometre-radius area.'

Only one of Japan's major commercial ports, Niigata on the west coast, is within 80 kilometres of Fukushima prefecture.

The spokesman said the quarantine zone, approximately five kilometres south of Lamma Island, was close to Hong Kong's sea border.

It is not clear what will happen if a ship is found contaminated.

The plan worried some islanders. They want notifying quickly if there is anything wrong with vessels or people.

'It is better for them not to wash the ships or goods that might have radiation there,' said Leung Kwun-wah, who runs a fish farm in Lamma. 'They should also inform us quickly in the worst case so I can move the fish out and sell them immediately.'

Heston Kwong Kwok-wai, assistant director of health, said the risk of the Maltese-registered ship being contaminated was low as it was away from Japan when the radiation scare happened at the Fukushima nuclear plant. 'There is no need to impose any restriction on travellers or goods,' he said, citing the International Maritime Organisation and World Health Organisation.

Kwong said the Health Department took into account previous ports of call before issuing a health certificate for a ship to enter Hong Kong.

Another container ship, the Clementine Maersk, will arrive today from Yokohama - which is more than 200 kilometres from Fukushima.

The scare surrounding the Moliere began when the agent requested Princess Margaret Hospital, Kwai Chung, check the crew on board - mostly from Ukraine and Korea.

Health authorities were put on high alert after the request, and temporary cleaning facilities were immediately set up at the entrances to three nearby hospitals, including Yan Chai Hospital, Tsuen Wan, and Caritas Medical Centre, Sham Shui Po.

The alert ended after the shipmaster reported by radio yesterday morning that the crew were healthy.

It is the first time such an emergency arrangement has been made since the crisis began at the Fukushima plant; its problems have led to contamination of crops, milk and even tap water. 'It has given us a very good opportunity to prepare for what might happen,' said Lai Tung-kwok, undersecretary for security.

The Moliere left Yokohama, near Tokyo, on March 11, the day the earthquake and tsunami struck northeast Japan. It called at Pusan, Shanghai, Ningbo , Xiamen, Guangzhou and Shenzhen before reaching Hong Kong at about 3am.

It anchored at berth 10 at Kwai Chung container port, where it unloaded 50 containers for re-export. Nine of the containers were from Japan, but customs officers found they were not contaminated by radiation. The ship left Hong Kong for Malaysia in the afternoon.

Meanwhile, the Centre for Food Safety and the customs department said the latest batch of food and other imports from Japan tested for radiation were found to be safe.