Co-ops oppose plans to release Fukushima water into the Pacific

JF Zengyoren president said the federation was ‘categorically opposed to the ocean release’

Japan’s decision to release more than one million tonnes of radioactive water from the destroyed Fukushima nuclear plant into the Pacific Ocean has been met with dismay from the country’s fisheries co-operatives. 

The power plant was damaged by a tsunami in 2011, triggered by a 9.0 magnitude earthquake. Since then, over one million tonnes of contaminated water has accumulated on the site, as groundwater seeps into the wrecked reactor basements, mixing with highly radioactive debris.

The decision on what to do with the water has been delayed for several years due to safety concerns and protests, but a decision was reached at a Cabinet meeting today (13 April), where ocean release was endorsed as the best option.

The government was close to approving the release in October last year but was delayed by strong opposition from local fishermen and the National Federation of Fisheries Co-operative Associations (JF Zengyoren). Public support for ocean release also remains low. A survey by public broadcaster NHK in March 2021 showed that 51% of respondents were against the release, with 18% supporting it.

Last Wednesday (7 April), Japan’s Prime Minister, Yoshihide Suga, met with Hiroshi Kishi, president of JF Zengyoren, whose members are concerned with both the environmental impact and the reputational damage the move may inflict on fisheries products from Fukushima Prefecture.

Mr Kishi has now called on the government to take measures to address reputational damage for the industry and explain its decision to fishermen and the wider public. He restated that the federation was “categorically opposed to the ocean release” and called on the government to “dispel the anxiety of fishermen not only in Fukushima but also all over the country”.

He also called on the government to address the issue of succession and “clearly show the measures for the continuation of fishing to [their] grandchildren”, while also continuing to explore “new processing and storage methods” for the contaminated water. 

Local fishing communities say the water’s release will undo years of hard work to rebuild consumer confidence in their seafood. “They told us that they wouldn’t release the water into the sea without the support of fishermen,” said Kanji Tachiya, who leads a local fisheries co-operative in Fukushima, speaking with public broadcaster NHK ahead of the announcement. “We can’t back this move to break that promise and release the water into the sea unilaterally.”

A purification system called ALPS removes radionuclides to levels in line with national standards, but cannot remove tritium. Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings Inc., the plant operator, expects to run out of tank storage capacity in late 2022. The process of release will take up to two years of preparation, and the government is considering releasing water in small quantities at a time into the Pacific Ocean off Fukushima Prefecture over a period of about 30 years, after diluting the concentration of tritium to about one-fortieth of the maximum set out by national standards. 

The government says the move is not expected to impact human health. Japanese officials have objected to media descriptions of the water as “contaminated” or “radioactive”, insisting that it be described as “treated”.

The plans have also been strongly criticised by neighbouring countries including South Korea and China – whose foreign ministry called the plan “extremely irresponsible” and accused Japan of reaching the decision “without regard for domestic and foreign doubts and opposition”.

“This approach is extremely irresponsible and will seriously damage international public health and safety and the vital interests of the people of neighbouring countries,” the Chinese foreign ministry said in a statement on its website.

Currently 15 countries and regions, including China, Hong Kong and Taiwan, still enforce import restrictions on food from Fukushima prefecture, although 39 nations have lifted restrictions since the 2011 nuclear disaster.  

Around 300,000 people are members of Japan’s 947 coastal fisheries co-operatives, which serve as core organisations in fishing villages, protecting fishing grounds, fostering marine resources and marketing seafood, while also supplying fishing materials and other daily commodities to members. These co-operatives are in turn organised into prefectural JF federations, under the national body, JF Zengyoren, which serves to protect the fishery management and lives of JF members, foster rich marine resources, contribute to the creation of enriched communities, and improve the social and economic status of current members and future generations.