Photo: The Canadian Press
People try to catch fish at the fishing port of Nomanouchi in Iwaki, northeastern Japan.
Beach season has begun all over Japan, which means seafood for holidays and good times for business owners. But in Fukushima, it may soon be over.
Within weeks, the tsunami that hit the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant is expected to start dumping treated sewage into the sea, a controversial plan that remains the subject of fierce protests inside and outside Japan.
Residents worry that the water discharge 12 years after the nuclear disaster could cause another setback for Fukushima’s image and harm their businesses and livelihoods.
“Without a healthy environment, I cannot earn a living. The government has not yet announced when it will start releasing the water,” said Yukinaga Suzuki, 70, a hotel owner at Osuiso Beach in Iwaki, about 50 kilometers (30 miles) south of the station.
It is not yet clear whether the copy will be destroyed or not. But locals say they feel “shikatagani” – that is, helpless.
Suzuki asked officials to delay the plan until at least the end of the swimming season in mid-August.
“If you ask me what I think about releasing the water, I am against it. But I can do nothing to stop it because the government has made the plan unilaterally and will publish it anyway.”
He said the beach would be in the path of the treated waters heading south on the Oyashio Stream off Fukushima Daiichi. This is where the cold Oyashio Current meets the warm, northbound Kuroshio Current, making it a rich fishing ground.
The government and operator, Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings, or TEPCO, have struggled to manage the massive amount of polluted water that has accumulated since the 2011 nuclear disaster and announced plans to release it into the ocean over the summer.
They say the plan is to treat the water, diluting it with more than a hundred times that of seawater, and then returning it to the Pacific Ocean through an underwater tunnel. They said it was safer to do so than required by national and international standards.
Suzuki is among those not entirely convinced by a government awareness campaign that critics say only emphasizes safety. “We don’t know yet if it’s safe,” said Suzuki. “We won’t be able to find out until much later.”
Before the disaster, the Oswego area had more than a dozen family homes. Today, the half-century-old Suzukami, which he inherited from his parents 30 years ago, is the only one still working after surviving the tsunami. He chairs the area’s safety committee and runs his only beach house.
Suzuki says hostel guests won’t mention the water problem if they cancel their reservations and he’ll just have to guess. “I serve fresh local fish to my guests, and the beach houses allow visitors to rest and relax. The ocean is my livelihood.”
The March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami destroyed the cooling systems at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant, melting three reactors and contaminating their cooling water, which has been leaking continuously ever since. The water is collected, filtered and stored in approximately 1,000 tanks, which will reach capacity in early 2024.
The government and TEPCO say the water needs to be drained to make way to close the plant and avoid accidental leaks from tanks because most of the water is still contaminated and needs to be retreated.
Katsumasa Okawa, who runs a seafood business in Iwaki, says these tanks of polluted water bother him more than the treated water. He wants them removed as soon as possible, especially after seeing “massive” tanks occupying much of the factory complex when he visited a few years ago.
Okawa says the accidental leak will be “the final blow…that will cause real damage, not reputation.” I think the discharge of treated water is inevitable. He adds that it is terrifying to live near the damaged factory for decades.
Fukushima’s hard-hit fishing and tourism community and economy are still recovering. The government has allocated 80 billion yen ($573 million) to support the fishing and processing of seafood that remains at risk and to address potential reputational damage from the water spill.
His wife moved into her parents’ home in Yokohama near Tokyo with their four children, but Ohkawa stayed behind in Iwaki to work on reopening the shop. In July 2011, Okawa started selling fresh fish again, but none from Fukushima.
Local fisheries returned to normal operation in 2021 when the government announced a drainage plan.
Domestic catches in Fukushima today are still about a fifth of pre-disaster levels due to lower catches and catch sizes.
Japanese fishing organizations have been adamantly opposed to releasing Fukushima waters, fearing further damage to the reputation of their seafood as it struggles to recover. Groups in South Korea and China have also raised concerns, making it a political and diplomatic issue. Hong Kong has vowed to ban imports of aquatic products from Fukushima and other Japanese prefectures if Tokyo discharges treated radioactive wastewater into the sea.
China plans to tighten import restrictions and restaurants in Hong Kong have begun changing their menu to exclude Japanese seafood. Agriculture Minister Tetsuro Nomura acknowledged that some fish exports from Japan have been suspended at Chinese customs and that Japan is urging Beijing to respect the flag.
“Our plan is scientific and safe, and the most important thing is to firmly convey and understand it,” Tomohiko Mayuzumi, director of TEPCO, told the Associated Press during his visit to the factory. However, people still have concerns, so the final decision on the release date will be “a political decision for the government,” he said.
Japan requested the support of the International Atomic Energy Agency to achieve transparency and credibility. The IAEA’s final report, released this month directly to Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, concluded that the method met international standards and that its environmental and health impacts would be minimal. The director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Rafael Grossi, said the radioactivity in the water would be almost undetectable and there would be no cross-border effects.
Scientists generally agree that the environmental impact of treated water will be minimal, but some are calling for more attention to the dozens of low-dose radionuclides left in the water, saying there is insufficient data on their long-term impact on the environment and marine life.
The radioactivity in the treated water is so low that once it reaches the ocean, it will spread rapidly and become almost undetectable, said Katsumi Shozugawa, a professor of environmental chemistry at the University of Tokyo, making sampling the water before it is released critical for data analysis.
He said the release could only take place safely and reliably “if TEPCO strictly adheres to the established procedures”. Shuzugawa said serious water sampling, transparency and comprehensive inspections — not just limited to the IAEA, TEPCO-mandated testers and the government — are key to building trust.
Japanese authorities describe the treated water as problematic because of the tritium, but it also contains dozens of other radionuclides that have leaked from the damaged fuel. Experts say that although it has been filtered to legally releaseable levels and considered to have minimal environmental impact, it still needs scrutiny.
TEPCO and government officials say tritium is the only radionuclide that cannot separate from water and is diluted to contain only a small portion of the national discharge cap, while experts say extreme dilution is also necessary to sufficiently reduce the concentration of other radionuclides.
“If you ask about their impact on the environment, frankly, we can only say we don’t know,” says Shuzugawa, referring to the dozens of radionuclides that shouldn’t be leaking out in normal reactors. “But it is true that the lower the concentration, the lower the environmental impact,” he said, and the plan is supposed to be safe.
Water treatment is a less daunting task at the plant than the deadly radioactive debris that remains in reactors, or the constant small leaks of radioactivity outward.
Shozugawa, who has regularly measured radioactivity in samples of groundwater, fish and plants near the Fukushima Daiichi plant since the disaster, says his 12 years of sampling work shows that small amounts of radioactivity from Fukushima Daiichi have continually seeped into the groundwater and port of the plant. Its potential impact on the ecosystem, he says, also requires greater attention than the controlled release of treated water.
TEPCO denies the emergence of new leaks from the reactors and attributes the high percentage of cesium in the fish that are sometimes caught inside the port to the sediment contamination of the initial leaks and the discharge of rainwater.
The executive director of a local fishing cooperative, Takayuki Yanai, recently told an online event that forcing the release of waters without public support only harms reputation and harms Fukushima fisheries. “We don’t need an extra burden to recover.”
“Public understanding does not exist because of the lack of confidence in the government and TEPCO,” he said. “Security only comes from trust.”