The Argument is a feature dedicated to promoting dialogue and deeper understanding of contentious issues by introducing various viewpoints.
Releasing the treated radioactive water stored at the Fukushima No.1 nuclear power plant risks further damage to the disaster-hit prefecture’s reputation and negates the nine-year effort to dispel negative perceptions about local agricultural produce, fisheries and tourism.
Although the government is considering dumping the water into the ocean, it should find a different solution and listen to the concerns of the people of Fukushima and local industries.
As the governor of Fukushima Prefecture between 2006 and 2014, I had my work cut out for me after the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear accident in March 2011.
Some of my main challenges after the disaster were securing the safety of the residents, ensuring they had access to evacuation shelters, managing the whereabouts of 160,000 evacuees scattered in and out of the prefecture and deciding on the site for interim storage of the soil and waste generated by the decontamination effort.
Determining the site was very difficult, but in the end the towns of Okuma and Futaba, which co-host the crippled nuclear power plant, honorably made the agonizing decision to accommodate it on condition that the tainted waste would be moved to a final disposal site outside of Fukushima within 30 years after the storage began.
During my term, I visited South Korea and China in 2012 to explain to local media using scientific facts that Fukushima produce is safe. I also helped arrange for several national and international conferences to be held in Fukushima Prefecture, based on the belief that coming to the prefecture and trying the local food was the best way to reassure guests that the area was safe and secure.
In December 2012, I lured an International Atomic Energy Agency meeting to the prefecture. Hundreds of nuclear specialists, ministers and other dignitaries from around the world gathered to share the lessons from the nuclear disaster and discuss the need to reinforce nuclear safety.
Today, nearly a decade after the disaster, Fukushima’s reputation is recovering — but only to a limited extent.
Although the government has prioritized ensuring security based on scientific facts, the public sense of security has yet to be restored.
Notwithstanding the central and prefectural government’s message about safety from radiation, local produce still carries cheaper price tags than those from other prefectures and the number of school trips to Fukushima has not bounced back to pre-disaster levels.
The fishing industry along the eastern coast, which the nuclear power plant faces, has taken one of the biggest hits from the negative perception of Fukushima. The prices of fish caught off the prefecture are extremely low when they are brought to Tokyo.
Fukushima is one of the major rice producers in Japan. After the disaster, officials began to check all of the prefecture’s annual output of around 10 million bags of rice for radioactive materials. The blanket testing takes a lot of effort. Even though the inspection confirms the products’ safety, they are cheaper just because they come from Fukushima.
I heard that farmers in the western region of Aizu — one of the main rice producers in the prefecture — asked the agricultural cooperative to use Aizu labels, rather than those of Fukushima, to avoid stigma. The neighborhood is located more than 100 kilometers from the area that hosts the power plant.
According to the Consumer Affairs Agency, the share of people in Tokyo and other metropolitan areas who said they hesitate to buy food products from Fukushima due to radiation contamination fears was 12.5 percent in February 2019.
The stigma from the nuclear disaster has beleaguered tourism in Aizu, which is finally showing signs of recovery. Because the name of the Fukushima nuclear power plant contains Fukushima, it gives the inevitable impression that the entire prefecture is contaminated with radiation.
Discharging water containing radioactive tritium — which cannot be removed by the current filtering technology — into the environment would only exacerbate these problems. Even though the government insists that releasing the water into the ocean is safe, some in Japan and abroad have yet to change their perceptions of Fukushima.
Gaining the understanding of local residents about the release method would be difficult. Rice farmers, for example, have suffered ever since the disaster. Their prime Koshihikari brand of rice, which was the nation’s second-most popular after Niigata’s before the disaster, used to sell out quickly.
Fukushima is a few more steps away from convincing consumers that its agriculture, forestry and fisheries products are safe and secure, so I want the government and plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings Inc. to prioritize the opinions of people in these key industries when discussing the issue of releasing the water.
When I was governor, the government and Tepco started to curb the amount of water being tainted with radioactive particles because the storage tanks, which could hold 1,000 tons of water each, filled up in just two days.
Doing so required preventing groundwater from flowing into the reactor buildings. We set up an impermeable wall of frozen soil around the reactor buildings to stem the flow of groundwater into the area, but this method did not work well at first.
So we used other approaches to divert groundwater away from the reactors. The combination of the methods reduced water flowing into the buildings from 450 tons to 130 tons a day.
But now the tanks are nearing their capacity, with Tepco estimating that they will reach that point by around the summer of 2022.
I understand that we cannot keep building storage tanks for the water. There is a limit to their capacity.
However, this dilemma calls for pooling scientific and other expertise from around the world to explore potential solutions, while building trust with local residents.
Tepco, which created the problem, and the government should take on the bulk of that task.
Yuhei Sato is a former governor of Fukushima Prefecture and is currently a special adviser to the president of Kanagawa University.