IWAKI, Japan — Beach season has begun across Japan, which means seafood for vacationers and a good time for business owners. But in Fukushima, that could end soon.
In the next few weeks, the tsunami-hit Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant is expected to begin discharging treated radioactive wastewater into the sea, a controversial plan that still faces fierce opposition inside and outside Japan.
Residents worry that the release of water 12 years after the nuclear disaster could cause another setback to Fukushima’s image and affect their businesses and livelihoods.
“Without a clean ocean, I cannot make a living.” Yukinaga Suzuki, a 70-year-old innkeeper in Usuiso beach, Iwaki, about 50 kilometers south of the plant, and the government has yet to announce when the discharge will begin.
It is not yet clear whether or how the release will hurt. But residents say they feel “shikataganai” – which means helpless.
Suzuki has asked officials to organize the plan at least until the swimming season ends in mid-August.
“If you ask me what I think about flushing, I will object. But there is nothing I can do to stop it because the government has unilaterally drawn up the plan and will by all means announce it,” he said. “It’s completely inappropriate to flush as soon as people are swimming in the sea, even if there’s no harm in it.”
He said the beach would be on the treated water line that flows south on the Oyashio Current from off the coast of Fukushima Daiichi.
The government and operator, Tokyo Electric Power Company, or TEPCO, has struggled to manage the huge amount of contaminated 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, dilute it with seawater more than 100 times and then release it into the Pacific Ocean through an undersea tunnel. Doing so is safer than required by national and international standards, they say.
Suzuki is among those not entirely convinced by the government’s awareness campaign, which critics say promotes only safety. “We don’t know if it’s safe,” Suzuki said. “We just can’t say until later.”
The Usuiso area used to have more than a dozen family-run inns before the disaster. Now, Suzuki’s half-century-old Suzukame, which he inherited from his parents 30 years ago, is the only one still working after surviving the tsunami. He heads a safety committee for the area and runs its only beach house.
Suzuki says his guests won’t mention the water issue if they cancel the reservation and he’ll just have to guess. “I serve fresh local fish to my guests, and the beach house is for visitors to rest and relax. The ocean is my lifeline.”
The March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami destroyed the cooling system of the Fukushima Daiichi plant, causing the three reactors to melt and contaminating their cooling water, from which it continuously leaked. The water is collected, filtered and stored in about 1,000 tanks, which will reach capacity in early 2024.
The government and TEPCO say the water must be removed to make room for plant shutdowns, and to prevent accidental leaks from storage tanks as much of the water is still contaminated and needs to be recovered.
Katsumasa Okawa, who runs a seafood business in Iwaki, says contaminated water tanks bother him more than the discharge of treated water. He wanted to get rid of them as soon as possible, especially after seeing the massive tanks that took up most of the factory complex during his visit a few years ago.
“An accidental leak would be ‘a final attack… It would cause real damage, not reputation,'” Okawa said. “I think the discharge of treated water is inevitable.” It was strange, he added, to have to live so close to the damaged factory for so many decades.
The fishing community has been hit hard, and Fukushima’s tourism and economy are still recovering. The government has allocated 80 billion yen ($573 million) to support the still weak fishing and seafood processing industry, and to counter potential reputational damage from the release of water.
His wife evacuated to her parents’ home in Yokohama, near Tokyo, with their four children, but Okawa stayed in Iwaki to reopen the store. In July 2011, Okawa continued to sell fresh fish — but not fish from Fukushima.
Local fishing operations returned to normal in 2021 when the government announced plans to release water.
Fukushima’s local catch today is still only about one-fifth of pre-disaster levels due to a reduced fishing population and a smaller catch.
Japan’s fishing organizations strongly oppose Fukushima’s release, as they worry about further damage to their seafood 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 announced it will ban the import of seafood products from Fukushima and other Japanese prefectures if Tokyo discharges treated radioactive wastewater into the sea.
China plans to strengthen import restrictions and Hong Kong restaurants are starting to change menus to exclude Japanese seafood. Agriculture Minister Tetsuro Nomura acknowledged that some seafood exports from Japan have been suspended by Chinese customs, and Japan is urging Beijing to honor the science.
“Our plan is scientific and safe, and the most important thing is to communicate that firmly and gain understanding,” Tomohiko Mayuzumi, a TEPCO official, told The Associated Press during a visit to the plant. Still, people are concerned and so the final decision on when to release will be “a political decision by the government,” he said.
Japan has sought support from the International Atomic Energy Agency for transparency and trustworthiness. The IAEA’s final report, published this month and given directly to Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, concluded that the method met international standards and that its impacts on the environment and health would be negligible. IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi said radioactivity in the water would be nearly undetectable and would have no transboundary impact.
Scientists generally agree that the environmental impact from treated water will be negligible, but some have called for more attention to the dozens of low-dose radionuclides that remain in the water, saying data on their long-term effects on the environment and marine life are insufficient.
The radioactivity of the treated water is so low that once it lands in the ocean, it quickly disperses and becomes nearly undetectable, which makes sampling the water before discharge important for data analysis, said Katsumi Shozugawa, professor of environmental chemistry at the University of Tokyo.
He said the release can be done safely and reliably “only if TEPCO strictly follows the planned processes”. Careful, transparent water sampling and more extensive cross-checking — not limited to the IAEA and two laboratories authorized by TEPCO and the government — are key to gaining trust, said Mr. Shozugawa.
Japanese officials describe the treated water as a tritium problem, but it also contains dozens of other radionuclides that leak from damaged fuel. While they are filtered to legally releaseable levels and their environmental impact is considered minimal, they still need to be closely monitored, experts say.
TEPCO and government officials say tritium is the only radionuclide that cannot be separated from water and is being diluted to contain only a fraction of the national discharge limit, while experts say much dilution is needed to reduce concentrations of other radionuclides.
“If you ask about their impact on the environment, to be honest, we can only say we don’t know,” Shozugawa said, referring to the dozens of radionuclides whose leakage is not anticipated at conventional reactors, he said. “But it’s true that the lower the concentration, the smaller the environmental impact,” he said, and the plan is probably safe.
Treated water is a much less difficult task at the plant than the deadly radioactive molten debris left behind in the reactors, or small, persistent radioactive leaks to the outside.
Shozugawa, who has been regularly measuring the radioactivity of groundwater, fish and plant samples near the Fukushima Daiichi plant since the disaster, said his 12-year sampling work has shown that small amounts of radiation from Fukushima Daiichi are continuously leaking into the plant’s groundwater and ports. He says its potential impact on the ecosystem also requires more attention than the controlled release of treated water.
TEPCO denied new leaks from the reactors and attributed the high levels of cesium in fish sometimes caught inside the port to sediment contamination from initial leaks and stormwater drainage.
The executive director of the local fisheries cooperative Takayuki Yanai said in a recent online event that forcing the release of water without community support only causes reputational damage and harms Fukushima’s fisheries. “We don’t need an extra burden on our recovery.”
“Public understanding is lacking because of distrust towards the government and TEPCO,” he said. “The feeling of security only comes from trust.”