Ten years after the March 2011 Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant catastrophe, local fishermen are finally holding out hope for a return to normalcy this spring.

The industry has long battled reputational damage to its products and salaries have taken a hit as annual catches have been kept at a fraction of pre-quake levels. In the first year after the quake, more than half of the fish samples tested for radioactive cesium levels exceeded the state’s limit of 100 becquerels per kilogram. But the samples continued to show decreasing radioactivity and shipment restrictions were lifted for all marine fisheries products in February 2020.

Things are looking even brighter this year as the local fisheries association plans to resume full-scale fishing operations next month. But industry insiders are increasingly worried that their efforts during the slow recovery over the past decade may come to naught if the government goes ahead with its long-sought target of releasing more than 1 million tons of treated radioactive water into the sea.

“We at the fisheries cooperative in Fukushima are all in agreement in our strong opposition to the release of contaminated water,” says Takashi Niitsuma, managing director of the fisheries association in the city of Iwaki, Fukushima Prefecture.

Some in the fishing industry are hoping to reduce their reliance on Tokyo Electric Power Co. Holdings Inc. (Tepco) handouts, which compensate for a portion of lost revenues. The last thing Niitsuma wants is a sense of deja vu over the struggle they have endured to restore the public’s trust in Fukushima’s fish after the triple meltdown, which saw prices fall compared with those for fish caught elsewhere.

Fishing operations resumed on a trial basis in June 2012, but to assuage people’s hesitance to buy local fish, the Fukushima fisheries association banned the sales of any fish exceeding cesium levels of 50 becquerels per kilogram, more stringent than the state limit of 100 becquerels.

Those measures have had some success as annual catches have been growing gradually, with last year’s catches increasing by 26.5% to 4,532 tons. But the figure was still only 17.5% of pre-quake levels, according to the Fukushima Prefectural Federation of Fisheries Co-operative Associations.

The radioactivity levels in fish is monitored at the Fukushima Prefectural Fisheries and Marine Science Research Center in Iwaki, in Fukushima Prefecture, in September last year. | KYODO
The radioactivity levels in fish is monitored at the Fukushima Prefectural Fisheries and Marine Science Research Center in Iwaki, in Fukushima Prefecture, in September last year. | KYODO

Fukushima’s fishing industry has long reaped the benefits of rich offshore fishing grounds, where the north-flowing black current runs into the south-flowing Kuril current. It posted ¥18.7 billion in overall fish sales in 2010, and ranked 24th in Japan. Flounder caught off Fukushima was once particularly popular and fetched premium market prices.

The goal of resuming full-fledged operations from April was dealt another blow when black rockfish shipments were halted on Feb. 22 after one sample caught off Shinchi, Fukushima Prefecture, showed 500 becquerels of cesium. It marked the first case of any fish caught off Fukushima breaching the state limit for cesium since January 2019.

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s administration has pledged to make a formal decision on the fate of the accumulating water as early as possible, considering two years of preparation is required for any release. The plant operator, Tepco, expects to run out of tank storage capacity in the fall in 2022. The government was on the brink of formally approving the release last October but faced stiff opposition from local fishermen and the National Federation of Fisheries Co-operative Associations, which forced the government to put off the decision indefinitely.

“For about 10 years since the nuclear accident, the Fukushima fishermen have conducted fishing trials on limited days and restricted quotas and are making painstaking efforts to resume full-scale operations,” the federation said in a statement submitted to Environment Minister Shinjiro Koizumi and economy minister Hiroshi Kajiyama last October.

“If the treated water were to be released, the reputational damage would be unavoidable, and we’re afraid that the impact would be so severe that the fishermen’s efforts would come to nothing, and could have a catastrophic impact on the future of the fishing industry in Japan.”

A Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry panel in February 2020 recommended that the water be released into the sea and considered it the most practical option, saying that it is common practice for nuclear plants around the world. The Cabinet favored the method over another practical option — vaporizing the treated water and releasing it as steam into the atmosphere — because that would require more cumbersome work, have higher costs and has never been executed at a nuclear plant in Japan.

The government is considering releases in small quantities at a time into the Pacific off Fukushima Prefecture over a period of about 30 years, after diluting the concentration of tritium to about one-fortieth of national standards. It says the move has no expected impact on human health. The government also says it will monitor and make public the discharge’s impact to the sea and continue to work to help support the fishing industry and Fukushima Prefecture.

Another solution may be to build more storage tanks. Tepco’s chief decommissioning officer, Akira Ono, did not rule out that possibility but said there were concerns it could disrupt decommissioning work as space has become limited at the plant.

Despite those measures, the government is having a hard time convincing the public that the water release is the best way forward. An NHK survey showed this month that 51% of respondents are against the release, compared with 18% who support it.

The water-release plans have also invited condemnation from neighboring countries including South Korea. According to Fukushima Prefecture, 15 countries and regions including China, Hong Kong and Taiwan still enforce import restrictions on food made in Fukushima, though 39 nations have lifted such restrictions in the years following the nuclear disaster.

Storage tanks for contaminated water at Tepco's Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant in Okuma, Fukushima Prefecture | AFP-JIJI
Storage tanks for contaminated water at Tepco’s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant in Okuma, Fukushima Prefecture | AFP-JIJI

Kohta Juraku, a Tokyo Denki University professor who is an expert on nuclear power and its impact on society, said it’s true that nuclear plants in many countries release tritium-tainted water into the sea as part of normal operations. But he added that it’s natural that the public has become more guarded about the release plan because of the negative perceptions associated with the plant due to the meltdowns.

“Local fishermen are worried that it would lead to consumers holding back from buying local products and a price decline again, jeopardizing their efforts since the disaster,” he said. “These things are making it difficult for the fishermen to talk with the government and Tepco.”

Juraku also points out that while reputational damage to the products is unavoidable, Japan’s judicial system does not recognize such damage in general, which is dragging out the negotiations between the fishing sector and the government.

“In the U.S., when there’s reputational damage, a plaintiff can sue for compensation for financial losses,” he said. “But Japan is different from other countries in that it has historically considered the issue as a problem of uninformed consumers and not as a genuinely economic one. The government always tries to sort it out by launching public enlightenment campaigns and is unwilling to make direct compensation to the affected industry. Its courts are also reluctant to recognize such losses in general.”

The treated water has been building up because more than 100 tons of groundwater seeps into the wrecked reactor basements every day, mixing with highly radioactive debris. Tepco, which now has more than 1.2 million tons of treated water in tanks at the plant, has said it will run out of storage capacity as early as the fall of 2022. The capacity is capped at 1.37 million tons, the utility says.

A purification system called ALPS removes 62 radionuclides to reach levels below national standards but it cannot remove tritium. The majority of the treated water stored in more than 1,000 tanks contains radioactive materials other than tritium that exceed national concentration limits, but Tepco says that reprocessing the water can reduce concentration levels to below the limits.

Even if the water issue is resolved, there will still be a long road ahead for the plant’s planned completion of decommissioning sometime between 2041 and 2051, a plan that is plagued by myriad of challenges. Tepco in late February completed the retrieval of all spent nuclear fuel from the No. 3 reactor, marking the first such feat among the three reactors that suffered meltdowns.

But what is considered a near-impossible challenge for Tepco is the extraction of nearly 900 tons of melted reactor debris from the three wrecked reactors using a robot arm. The radioactivity remains extremely high near the reactor containment vessels — enough to instantly kill a human and to disable a robot in a matter of days. Tepco was set to kick-start preliminary work on extracting melted reactor debris by the end of 2021, but the work has been postponed by about a year due to a delay in cooperation with a U.K. robot manufacturer amid the coronavirus pandemic. Tepco’s Ono, however, has dismissed concerns that the delay will have a large impact on the overall decommission schedule.

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