Fukushima fishers fight for survival

Stressing that the ocean is not a trash can, Haruo Ono, a 71-year-old fisher, opposed the discharge of nuclear-contaminated water into the sea. In his opinion, such water should be stored in tanks.


December 20, 2023

BEIJING – Since the age of 15, Haruo Ono has been fishing in Japan’s Fukushima Prefecture. But the discharge of nuclear-contaminated water from the crippled Fukushima nuclear plant into the Pacific Ocean has changed the fate of fishers like 71-year-old Ono.

In Fukushima, fishers have endured and persevered over the past decade.

Before the occurrence of the earthquake in 2011, fishers in the prefecture could freely fish in the sea. However, that is not the case now.

It saddens me to think that children might no longer be able to enjoy activities like swimming in the sea or playing by the shore. This is something that cannot be expressed in numbers or words.

Chiyo Oda, co-director of the citizens’ group KOREUMI in Fukushima

Ono told Xinhua News Agency in an interview that there are regulations specifying which species of fish can be caught, and limits on the quantity that can be caught in one fishing trip. Fishing levels have not yet returned to the levels before the earthquake.

Japan started releasing the first batch of radioactive water treated through a multinuclide removal system — around 7,800 metric tons — from the wrecked Fukushima plant on Aug 24. The plant suffered a triple meltdown in an earthquake and ensuing tsunami on March 11, 2011.

Tokyo Electric Power Company, or TEPCO, the operator of the plant, has so far completed releasing three batches of nuclear-contaminated water. It plans to discharge the fourth batch of around 7,800 tons during the current fiscal year that ends in March.

Furthermore, the disposal of nuclear-contaminated water will take decades to complete. Ono wondered why the Japanese government decided to release radioactive substances into the ocean when fishers still could not freely fish in the sea.

He said fishers take risks and endure hardships to fish not only out of pride as fishers, but also with the hope of allowing consumers to enjoy delicious fish.

Stressing that the ocean is not a trash can, he opposed the discharge of nuclear-contaminated water into the sea. In his opinion, such water should be stored in tanks.

One of his concerns stems from the fact that all three of his sons are fishermen, and he wants to ensure that they are not forced into economic hardship in the future.

On Sept 8, 151 individuals, including fishers from Fukushima, filed a lawsuit against the Japanese government and TEPCO in the Fukushima District Court, demanding a halt to the release of nuclear-contaminated water. By Nov 9, the number of plaintiffs in the lawsuit increased to 363.

Yuya Kamoshita, his wife and their younger son were among the plaintiffs. The Kamoshita family evacuated from Iwaki, a city about 50 kilometers away from the crippled plant, to Tokyo right after the March 2011 accident.

Emphasizing that dangerous substances should not be disposed of carelessly, Kamoshita said the contaminated water “contains a large amount of harmful substances” and should not be discharged into the sea.

“TEPCO’s management of radioactive substances and the methods for detecting radiation concentrations have become increasingly lax,” he said. “Some measurement results for the concentration of radioactive nuclides are now expressed as ‘not detectable’, without numerical values. In any case, TEPCO should provide a specific number. Otherwise, how can we trust the test results?”

Kamoshita said he did not believe there was no radiation leakage as the government claimed.

Severe radiation

To date, nuclear radiation in many locations in Fukushima is still severe, said Kamoshita, leader of the plaintiff group suing the Japanese government and TEPCO in another lawsuit, with the main goal of seeking compensation for radiation damage.

Five years after the nuclear accident, Kamoshita detected a high radiation concentration in his home in Iwaki, way above the safety limit. Some households among the plaintiffs had even higher concentrations in their homes.

“TEPCO has neglected these issues. As long as our homes are outside the evacuation-designated zones, TEPCO does not take action to eliminate radiation contamination,” Kamoshita said.

“When I lived in Iwaki, I used to be able to go into the mountains to pick wild vegetables. However, these activities are no longer possible, and restoring our lives to the previous state is now impossible.”

Because of health concerns, Kamoshita quit his job as a microbiology teacher in Iwaki and secured a temporary position at a Tokyo university. To make ends meet, he also works in real estate management.

Given Tokyo’s high housing cost, he is now renting a small house and living in the city with his elder son, while his wife is living in Yokohama with their younger son. Many male evacuees from Fukushima are also separated from their wives and children.

There are more than 30 lawsuits filed in Japan against the government and TEPCO, with a total of around 13,000 plaintiffs, Kamoshita said.

“Our purpose in filing the lawsuits is not only to obtain compensation, but also to have the government acknowledge some responsibility for the Fukushima nuclear accident.”

Chiyo Oda, co-director of KOREUMI, or the Citizens’ Conference to Condemn Further Pollution of the Ocean in Iwaki, said the Fukushima nuclear accident had a significant impact, changing everything in their daily lives and routines.

“Even more than 12 years after the accident, living with the awareness of radiation in our surroundings is something that did not exist before the accident,” Oda said.

Even now, radiation measurements are still being conducted in many places. The effects of radiation vary depending on lifestyles, age and health conditions, but there have been persistent concerns about long-term exposure to low doses since the accident, Oda said.

Like Kamoshita, Oda is one of the plaintiffs suing the Japanese government and TEPCO in an attempt to stop the discharge of nuclear-contaminated water into the ocean.

“I view this lawsuit from a broad perspective as a claim to the right to live on Earth. Even if it were to result in a loss, it does not negate that assertion,” she said.

Continuing to dump nuclear-contaminated water into the sea will perpetuate the damage caused by the accident, because such actions will spread radiation into the interconnected oceans of the world. Just as the nuclear accident should not have occurred, ocean discharge should also not have taken place, she said.

Concerned about the impact on the marine ecosystem, from seaweed and plankton to seafood and humans who consume them, she said radiation is known to affect at the genetic level, and depending on the nuclide, it can have various effects on different organs.

The psychological effect on people who are fond of the sea is also immeasurable.

“Every time we see the beautiful sea, the thought that radiation is flowing here crosses our minds,” Oda said. “It saddens me to think that children might no longer be able to enjoy activities like swimming in the sea or playing by the shore. This is something that cannot be expressed in numbers or words.”

She said she believes the Japanese government should disclose requested information regarding the ocean discharge, including details about the amount and types of radioactive substances released.

“The government should seek understanding and cooperation from all nations and individuals involved in this ocean discharge. It is crucial to reveal opinions from overseas to understand perspectives from abroad,” she said.

The Japanese government keeps emphasizing that water released from the Fukushima plant is treated water, not nuclear-contaminated water. But Motoo Tomizuka, a member of nonprofit No Nukes Plaza Tokyo, has a different view.

“It’s not treated water but contaminated water. This is because the treatment is extremely insufficient,” Tomizuka said. “Since the water has been discharged recently, it is difficult to determine the impact. In the future, I think it will affect not only Japan, but also countries along the Pacific coast.”

Main concern

The main concern is health problems resulting from internal exposure caused by the consumption of food, particularly seafood.

Health damage from radiation, such as childhood thyroid cancer, heart attacks and increased perinatal mortality in newborns, is not immediately apparent, but has occurred in previous nuclear accidents and it is expected to increase, Tomizuka said.

Hisataka Yamasaki, co-representative of No Nukes Plaza Tokyo, said what he finds most unacceptable about the ocean discharge is “the ease with which the government and TEPCO tell lies”.

“They betrayed their promise not to dump nuclear-contaminated water without the consent of the fishing industry. They lied about not having enough land for storage. Moreover, they also largely increased the estimated cost of the ocean discharge and significantly extended the estimated duration,” Yamasaki said.

“They have continuously deceived the public and international opinion with convenient explanations. Can they still claim the release of nuclear-contaminated water is safe in the future?”

The Japanese government and TEPCO have repeatedly said the discharge of Fukushima water meets international safety standards. A safety review conducted by the International Atomic Energy Agency had concluded that Japan’s plans to release treated water from the Fukushima plant into the sea are consistent with IAEA safety standards.

However, many Japanese citizens said they do not believe such pronouncements. The government and TEPCO, and even the IAEA, have lost the trust of some people.

“Basically, the IAEA makes judgments based solely on TEPCO’s measurement data and explanations, and the IAEA neither recommends nor permits the ocean discharge of contaminated water,” Yamasaki said.

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