Fukushima nuclear plant water release raises worries for businesses

Iwaki City –

The beach season has begun in various parts of Japan, with seafood for vacationers and fun for business owners. But in Fukushima, that may end soon.

Within weeks, the tsunami-hit Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant is expected to begin releasing treated radioactive wastewater into the sea, but the plan is controversial and still faces fierce protests at home and abroad.

Residents are concerned that the water discharge could further tarnish Fukushima’s image 12 years after the nuclear accident and adversely affect their businesses and livelihoods.

“Without a healthy sea, I can’t make a living,” said Yukinaga Suzuki, 70, who runs an inn on Usuiso Beach in the city of Iwaki, about 50 kilometers south of the plant. And the government has not yet announced when the water discharge will begin.

It is not yet clear if or how it will harm the release. But residents say they have no choice but to feel powerless.

Mr. Suzuki has urged authorities to continue the plan until at least mid-August, when the swimming season ends.

“If you ask me what I think about the water release, I’m against it, but the government unilaterally plans it and it just releases it, so I can’t stop it,” he said. “Even if it’s harmless, it’s completely insane to release water when people are swimming in the ocean.”

According to him, this beach will serve as a path for treated water that travels southward on the Oyashio Current from offshore of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. It is a rich fishing ground where the cold Oyashio Current meets the warm Kuroshio Current heading north.

The government and operator Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings (TEPCO) have announced plans to release it into the ocean over the summer as they struggle to manage the large amounts of contaminated water that has accumulated since the 2011 nuclear accident.

The plan is to treat this water, dilute it more than 100 times with seawater, and release it into the Pacific Ocean through an undersea tunnel. Doing so is safer than national and international standards require, they said.

Mr. Suzuki is also not entirely satisfied with the government’s educational campaign, which claims that critics only emphasize safety. “We still don’t know if it’s safe,” Suzuki said. “You won’t know until much later.”

Before the earthquake, there were more than a dozen family-run inns in the Usuiso district. Today, the half-century-old Suzukame, which Mr. Suzuki inherited from his parents 30 years ago, is the only restaurant that survived the tsunami and is still in business. He heads the area’s safety committee and operates the only beach house in the area.

Mr. Suzuki says that even if ryokan guests cancel their reservations, they won’t mention the water problem, so it’s a guess. “I provide fresh local fish to my guests. Sea houses are for visitors to rest and unwind. The sea is my source of livelihood.”

The earthquake and tsunami of March 11, 2011 destroyed the cooling system of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, melting three reactors and contaminating the cooling water, which continues to leak. Water will be collected, filtered and stored in about 1,000 tanks, which are expected to reach capacity in early 2024.

The government and Tepco argue that much of the water is still contaminated and needs reprocessing, so it needs to be removed to make room for the plant’s decommissioning and to prevent accidental leaks from tanks.

Katsumasa Okawa, who runs a seafood business in Iwaki, said he was more worried about tanks containing contaminated water than the release of treated water. He wants to remove them as soon as possible, especially after seeing the “huge” tanks that dominated the factory site during a visit a few years ago.

An accidental leak “would be the ultimate strikeout…it would do real harm, not reputation,” Okawa says. “I think the release of treated water is unavoidable.” It’s eerie to have to live near a damaged factory for decades, he added.

Fukushima’s hard-hit fisheries, tourism and economy are still recovering. The government has allocated 80 billion yen ($573 million) to support still-slumping fisheries and processed seafood and to combat potential reputational damage from the water cannons.

His wife and four children evacuated to his parents’ house in Yokohama near Tokyo, but Mr. Okawa remained in Iwaki and worked to reopen the store. In July 2011, sales of fresh fish resumed in Okawa, but none were from Fukushima.

By 2021, when the government announced plans to release the fish, local fisheries had returned to normal operations.

Local fish catches in Fukushima Prefecture are still only about one-fifth of their pre-earthquake levels due to a declining fishing population and reduced catches.

Japanese fisheries groups strongly opposed the release of water from Fukushima, fearing it would further damage the reputation of struggling seafood. Groups in South Korea and China have also expressed concern, turning it into a political and diplomatic issue. Hong Kong has vowed to ban seafood imports from Fukushima and other Japanese prefectures if Tokyo releases treated radioactive wastewater into the sea.

As China plans to tighten import controls, restaurants in Hong Kong have begun switching menus to eliminate Japanese seafood. Agriculture Minister Tetsuro Nomura acknowledged that some seafood exports from Japan have been blocked by Chinese customs and acknowledged that Japan is asking the Chinese government to respect science.

“Our plan is scientific and safe, and the most important thing is to communicate it clearly and gain understanding,” Tepco executive Tomohiko Mayuzumi told The Associated Press during a visit to the plant. Still, people have concerns, so the final decision on when to release will be a “political decision by the government,” she said.

Japan sought the assistance of the International Atomic Energy Agency to ensure transparency and credibility. The IAEA’s final report, released this month and delivered directly to Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, concluded that the method meets international standards and has negligible environmental and health impacts. IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi said radioactivity in water was almost undetectable and there was no cross-border impact.

Scientists generally agree that the environmental impact of treated water is negligible, but the lack of data on long-term effects on the environment and marine life has prompted some to call for more attention to the dozens of low-dose radionuclides that persist in water.

Katsumi Komizukawa, a professor of environmental chemistry at the University of Tokyo, said that the radioactivity of treated water is so low that it spreads quickly and becomes almost undetectable once it flows into the sea, making pre-release water sampling important for data analysis.

He said the release would be safe and credible “only if Tepco strictly follows its procedures as planned.” Azugawa said careful sampling of water, transparency, and extensive cross-checking, not limited to two laboratories commissioned by the IAEA, TEPCO and the government, are the keys to gaining trust.

Japanese authorities have characterized the treated water as tritium, but it also contains dozens of other radionuclides that escaped from the damaged fuel. These are filtered to legally releasable levels and are considered to have minimal environmental impact, but experts say they still require close scrutiny.

Tepco and government officials say tritium is the only radionuclide that cannot be separated from water and has been diluted to include only part of the country’s emission limits, but experts say significant dilution is needed to sufficiently reduce concentrations of other radionuclides as well.

Azugawa said, referring to dozens of radionuclides that are not expected to leak in normal reactors, “If you ask me about the environmental impact, I honestly can’t say.” “But it’s true that the lower the concentration, the smaller the environmental impact,” he said, adding that the plan was probably safe.

Treated water is less difficult to work with at a nuclear power plant than the deadly radioactive melted debris that remains in the reactor or the constant leak of traces of radiation to the outside.

Azukawa, who has routinely measured radioactivity in groundwater samples, fish and plants near the Fukushima Daiichi plant since the disaster, said his 12-year sampling work showed traces of radioactivity from the plant were continuously leaking into the groundwater and the plant’s port. He said more attention should be paid to the potential impact on ecosystems than the controlled release of treated water.

Tepco denies any new leaks from the reactor, blaming initial leaks and sediment contamination from rainwater drainage as the cause of the high cesium levels in fish occasionally caught in the harbor.

Takayuki Yanai, a local fisheries cooperative official, said at a recent online event that forcing the release without public support would only cause reputational damage and hurt Fukushima’s fisheries. “No more strain is needed on our recovery.”

“There is a lack of public understanding due to distrust of the government and TEPCO,” he said. “Security comes only from trust.”

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