The release of water from the Fukushima plant within weeks raises concerns about business and livelihood setbacks

Norman Ray
Norman Ray

Global Courant

IWAKI, Japan — Beach season has begun across Japan, meaning fish for vacationers and good times for entrepreneurs. But in Fukushima that may soon come to an end.

Within weeks, the tsunami-hit Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant is expected to begin discharging treated radioactive wastewater into the sea, a highly controversial plan that continues to face fierce protests inside and outside Japan.

Residents worry that 12 years after the nuclear disaster, the water runoff could represent another blow to Fukushima’s image, damaging their businesses and livelihoods.

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“I can’t get by without a healthy ocean.” said Yukinaga Suzuki, a 70-year-old innkeeper on Usuiso Beach in Iwaki, about 50 kilometers (30 miles) south of the plant. And the government has yet to announce when the water drainage will begin.

It is not yet clear whether or how the release will be harmful. But residents say they feel “shikataganai” – meaning helpless.

Suzuki has asked officials to hold the plan at least until the end of the swimming season in mid-August.

“If you ask me what I think about releasing water, I’m against it. But I can’t do anything to stop it as the government has unilaterally drafted the plan and will release it anyway,” he said. “Releasing the water just as people swim in the sea is totally inappropriate, even if it can do no harm.”

The beach, he said, will be in the path of treated water flowing south on the Oyashio Current off the coast of Fukushima Daiichi.

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Struggling to manage the massive amount of contaminated water that has accumulated since the 2011 nuclear disaster, the government and operator, Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings, or TEPCO, have announced plans to release it into the ocean over the summer.

They say the plan is to treat the water, dilute it with more than a hundred times seawater, and then release it into the Pacific Ocean through an undersea tunnel. According to them, this is safer than national and international standards require.

Suzuki is among those not fully convinced by the government’s public awareness campaign, which critics say only emphasizes safety. “We don’t know yet if it’s safe,” Suzuki said. “We can’t say until much later.”

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The Usuiso area had more than a dozen family-run inns before the disaster. Now Suzuki’s fifty-year-old Suzukame, which he inherited from his parents 30 years ago, is the only one still in operation after surviving the tsunami. He heads a safety committee for the area and operates the only beach house.

Suzuki says his inn guests won’t mention the water problem if they cancel their reservations and all he has to do is guess. “I serve fresh local fish to my guests, and the beach house is for visitors to rest and relax. The ocean is the source of my livelihood.”

The March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami destroyed the cooling systems at the Fukushima Daiichi plant, melting three reactors and contaminating their cooling water, which has been leaking continuously ever since. The water is collected, filtered and stored in some 1,000 tanks, which will reach their capacity in early 2024.

The government and TEPCO say the water must be removed to make room for the plant to be dismantled and to prevent the tanks from accidentally leaking, as much of the water is still contaminated and needs to be re-treated.

Katsumasa Okawa, who runs a fishmonger in Iwaki, says those tanks of contaminated water bother him more than the release of treated water. He wants to have them removed as soon as possible, especially after seeing much of the factory complex occupied during his visit several years ago.

An accidental leak would be “an ultimate strikeout… It will do actual damage, not reputation,” says Okawa. “I think the release of treated water is inevitable.” It’s creepy, he adds, to have to live near the damaged plant for decades.

The hard-hit fishing community, tourism and economy in Fukushima are still recovering. The government has allocated 80 billion yen ($573 million) to support still weak fishing and seafood processing and combat potential reputational damage from the water release.

His wife and their four children evacuated to her parents’ home in Yokohama, near Tokyo, but Okawa remained in Iwaki to work on reopening the store. In July 2011, Okawa resumed selling fresh fish, but none from Fukushima.

Local fisheries returned to normal in 2021 when the government announced the water release plan.

Fukushima’s local catch today is still about a fifth of its pre-disaster levels due to a decline in the fisherman population and smaller catches.

Japanese fisheries organizations strongly opposed releasing water in Fukushima, concerned about further damage to their seafood’s reputation as they struggle to recover. Groups in South Korea and China have also raised concerns, turning it into a political and diplomatic issue. Hong Kong has vowed to ban imports of aquatic products from Fukushima and other Japanese prefectures if Tokyo dumps treated radioactive wastewater into the sea.

China plans to ramp up import restrictions and Hong Kong restaurants began switching menus to exclude Japanese seafood. Agriculture Minister Tetsuro Nomura acknowledged that some fisheries exports from Japan have been suspended by China’s customs authorities, and that Japan urged Beijing to honor science.

“Our plan is scientific and safe, and it’s very important to communicate that clearly and gain understanding,” TEPCO official Tomohiko Mayuzumi told The Associated Press during his factory visit. Still, people are concerned and so a final decision on the timing of the release will be a “political decision by the government,” he said.

Japan sought support from the International Atomic Energy Agency for transparency and credibility. The IAEA’s final report, released this month and handed directly to Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, concluded that the method meets international standards and that environmental and health impacts are negligible. IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi said radioactivity in the water would be nearly undetectable and there would be no transboundary impact.

Scientists generally agree that the environmental impact of the treated water is negligible, but some are calling for more attention to dozens of low-dose radionuclides remaining in the water, citing insufficient data on their long-term effect on the environment and marine life.

The radioactivity of the treated water is so low that once it enters the ocean it spreads rapidly and becomes nearly undetectable, making pre-release sampling of the water important for data analysis, said University of Tokyo environmental chemistry professor Katsumi Shozugawa.

He said the release can be safely executed and trusted “only if TEPCO follows procedures strictly as planned.” Diligent water sampling, transparency and broader cross-checks — not just limited to IAEA and two laboratories commissioned by TEPCO and the government — are key to gaining trust, Shozugawa said.

Japanese officials characterize the treated water as tritium matter, but it also contains dozens of other radionuclides that leaked from the damaged fuel. Although they are filtered to legally releasable levels and their environmental impact is considered minimal, they still require close scrutiny, experts say.

TEPCO and government officials say tritium is the only radionuclide that is inseparable from water and is diluted to contain only a fraction of the national discharge limit, while experts say strong dilution is needed to sufficiently lower concentrations of other radionuclides as well.

“If you ask their environmental impact, all we can honestly say is we don’t know,” says Shozugawa, referring to dozens of radionuclides that are not expected to leak from normal reactors. “But it is true that the lower the concentration, the smaller the environmental impact,” and the plan is presumably safe, he said.

The treated water is a less challenging task in the plant compared to the deadly radioactive molten waste that remains in the reactors, or the continuous, small leaks of radioactivity to the outside.

Shozugawa, who has regularly measured the radioactivity of groundwater samples, fish and plants near the Fukushima Daiichi plant since the disaster, says his 12-year sampling work shows that small amounts of radioactivity from the Fukushima Daiichi have continuously leaked into the plant’s groundwater and port. He says the potential impact on the ecosystem also requires more attention than the controlled release of the treated water.

TEPCO denies new leaks from the reactors, attributing high cesium levels in fish sometimes caught in the harbor to sediment contamination from initial leaks and a stormwater runoff.

Takayuki Yanai, director of a local fisheries cooperative, told a recent online event that forcing water releases without public support will only cause reputational damage and hurt fisheries in Fukushima. “We don’t need any additional burden for our recovery.”

“There is a lack of public understanding due to mistrust of the government and TEPCO,” he said. “The sense of security only comes from trust.”

The release of water from the Fukushima plant within weeks raises concerns about business and livelihood setbacks

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