Fukushima fishermen’s distrust leads to rejection of TEPCO groundwater plan

May 14, 2013


Tokyo Electric Power Co. officials underestimated Fukushima fishermen’s anger and distrust toward the company whose failures continue to threaten their livelihoods.

After meeting fisheries leaders several times since last summer, utility officials believed they had won approval from a prefectural fisheries federation for a plan to reduce the amount of contaminated water at the stricken Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant.

However, the fishermen themselves lashed out against TEPCO at a meeting in Iwaki, Fukushima Prefecture, on May 13.

“An explanation from TEPCO alone will not be enough to win the confidence of union members,” a participant at the meeting said.

TEPCO officials emphasized the safety of its plan to pump up groundwater at the plant and release it into the ocean before it can flow into the basements of reactor and turbine buildings and mix with highly radioactive water accumulated there.

Some leaders of the Fukushima Prefectural Federation of Fisheries Co-operative Associations had agreed with TEPCO’s plan.

However, opposition from rank-and-file members was so great that the federation ended up rejecting TEPCO plan. Some members said that any water from the plant dumped into the sea would spread fears about the safety of their catches.

Officials of the Fukushima prefectural government and the central government’s Fisheries Agency also attended the meeting.

Fishermen in the Tohoku region, especially Fukushima Prefecture, have been trying to regain a sense of normalcy in their operations since the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami on March 11, 2011, led to the triple meltdown at the plant.

Weeks after the accident, the utility announced that highly radioactive water had leaked from the reactor buildings into the sea, contaminating the sea bed and fish. The company also released several thousand tons of contaminated water into the ocean in the early stages of the crisis.

Fukushima Prefecture has been fighting an uphill battle to convince the public that its products are safe from radiation contamination.

However, every report about water leaking or being released from the nuclear plant fuels fears of radiation and raises alarm among the local fishermen.

In the northern part of Fukushima Prefecture, where the contamination of seafood has been lower than in other areas, the Soma-Futaba fishermen’s union is preparing for full-fledged operations.

Since last June, the union has been distributing its catch based on trial operations. The types of marine products union members now catch have expanded to 16, and distribution has branched out to more markets.

The Iwaki fishermen’s union is also preparing to resume operations on a trial basis.

But the Soma-Futaba union considered suspending its trial operations after radioactive water stored in underground tanks at the nuclear plant was found to have leaked into the ground in April. Distributors called the Soma-Futaba union to ask if its marine products were safe for sale.

“If something happens at the plant, it will directly hit the image of local products,” said an official with a local marine food processor.

One senior union member who attended the May 13 meeting said the leaks reported in April “heightened anxiety among fishermen and their distrust of TEPCO.”

The leaks have also compounded the difficulties in storing water used to cool the melted and spent fuel at the plant. The lack of storage space is hindering the company’s overall plan to decommission the reactors.

Of the estimated 380,000 tons of contaminated water on the complex, 290,000 tons are stored in tanks and other facilities.

About 400 tons of groundwater flows in daily through cracks in the reactor and turbine buildings apparently caused by the March 11 earthquake. TEPCO plans to reduce the flow to 300 tons by diverting the water to the sea.

Describing the May 13 meeting as “extremely important,” TEPCO officials sought to win consent by showing the results of a study by the company and a third party on the quality of the groundwater.

Radioactive levels of groundwater at the plant were 0.02 to 0.18 becquerel per liter, compared with 1 to 2 becquerels per liter detected in rivers near the plant, TEPCO said.

Although the federation opposes the release of contaminated water, it was initially inclined to accept the utility’s plan for the groundwater.

“(The federation) would be better off letting it happen because TEPCO will have no choice but to release contaminated water into the sea if its system to handle radioactive water falls apart,” a federation official said.

The utility had assumed the federation would cooperate with the plan and was prepared to start releasing the groundwater into the sea the day after the meeting.

However, one union leader said before the meeting that most members at his union were opposed to the plan.

Tetsu Nozaki, who heads the federation, acknowledged after the meeting that a consensus was reached at the federation’s top level, but not among individual members.

“Even if it is groundwater, damage to the public perception of fishing will be unavoidable and could hurt our trial operations,” a member said.

One union leader noted that there was confusion among fishermen about the water to be released under TEPCO’s plan.

“Many of our members got a wrong idea that contaminated water would be dumped into the sea after being treated,” the leader said at the meeting. “If that is the case, then it will be impossible for consumers to understand (the difference between groundwater and treated water).”

Although surprised at the outcome of the meeting, TEPCO officials acknowledged that past talks with federation officials alone have proved insufficient to win the backing of local fishermen.

“We should start all over,” a TEPCO official said.

Federation officials are trying to reduce distrust of TEPCO by holding briefings where the utility and the central government can explain the water-release plan to individual fishermen. The presence of government officials is expected to emphasize that TEPCO’s plan is safe and in line with the central government’s policy.

Tsunemasa Niitsuma, managing executive officer with TEPCO, said after the May 13 meeting that the company has yet to gain the full trust of Fukushima fishermen.

“It is important for us to proceed to the next step after gaining their firm understanding,” he said.

The utility intends to complete the briefing rounds for union members in about a month.

The federation comprises six unions, with a total of 1,499 members.

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Fisheries officials in Fukushima Prefecture look at Tokyo Electric Power Co.'s plan to release groundwater from the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant into the sea. (Shiro Nishihata)

Fisheries officials in Fukushima Prefecture look at Tokyo Electric Power Co.'s plan to release groundwater from the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant into the sea. (Shiro Nishihata)

  • Fisheries officials in Fukushima Prefecture look at Tokyo Electric Power Co.'s plan to release groundwater from the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant into the sea. (Shiro Nishihata)
  • The Asahi Shimbun

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