Fukushima Fishermen Ruined by Tepco Now Key in Radiation Fight
By Yuriy Humber, Chisaki Watanabe & Masumi Suga – Aug 29, 2013 6:34 PM CT
Tokyo Electric Power Co. (9501) ruined the livelihoods of the commercial fishermen that trawled the seas off Fukushima prefecture when its leaking reactors poisoned the fishing grounds. The utility now needs their help.
At issue is a series of wells and pipes built by Tokyo Electric to alter the course of groundwater flowing from the hills behind the wrecked Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear station. The bypass, which is ready to operate, will divert water away from the plant’s damaged reactors and into the Pacific, thus reducing contamination, Tokyo Electric says.
The utility must first get the approval of the 1,500 members of Fukushima’s fishing cooperative and others in the area to begin using the bypass. With Tokyo Electric’s history of falsifying safety reports, hiding accidents and ignoring warnings, fisherman aren’t convinced the system is safe.
“We have yet to reach a conclusion” on whether the cooperative will agree to Tokyo Electric’s bypass plan, Tetsu Nozaki, chairman of the Fukushima Prefectural Federation of Fisheries Co-operative Associations, said today in Tokyo. “We will make a cool-headed decision.”
The three-month impasse has implications beyond Fukushima and Japan because it’s holding up the bid to reduce the 300 metric tons of radioactive water gushing into the Pacific each day.
More than 330,000 tons of water with varying levels of toxicity is stored in pits, basements and hundreds of tanks at the Fukushima nuclear plant 220 kilometers (137 miles) northeast of Tokyo. The water is the result of efforts to keep the reactor cores from overheating and groundwater pouring into the facility, wrecked by the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami.
Some of those tanks are vulnerable to leaks, Tokyo Electric, or Tepco, said last week. Moreover, the groundwater seeping into the Fukushima plant is mixing with radioactive water, getting contaminated.
Estimates say about 400 tons of groundwater flows down the hillside each day. The bypass would reduce that by about 25 percent, piping the water from the plant and into the ocean before it gets contaminated.
“We want to reach a consensus soon,” Yoshihisa Komatsu, an official at the Fukushima fishing cooperative, said by phone yesterday in reference to the bypass talks. “But some members oppose it so we are caught in the middle.”
Japan’s government promised “to take drastic measures to the maximum extent possible” to contain the radiated water leaks. That has so far amounted to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and the ruling Liberal Democrats instructing Tepco to win over the fishermen before proceeding.
“Despite its support for nuclear power, the Cabinet and LDP politicians know that the public dislikes atomic power and holds Tepco in contempt,” Robert Dujarric, director of the Institute of Contemporary Asian Studies at Temple University, said by e-mail. “They realise that the ‘optics’ of going over the objections of the fishermen would be very bad.”
Worse, leaks of radiated water into the ocean in recent weeks has set back efforts by Fukushima fishermen to convince consumers their product is safe, said Shoichi Abe, a member of a fisheries cooperative in Soma city in Fukushima.
“We concluded that we won’t be able to win the understanding of customers,” Abe said, adding that from next month Soma’s fishermen will stop trawling altogether.
For its part, Tepco said it has tried to explained to representatives of fisheries associations that the water in the bypass system wouldn’t touch radiated areas and therefore can be safely pumped into the sea. Tepco has held at least four meetings with the various cooperatives in Fukushima.
“The only thing we can do now is to explain this carefully,” Tepco President Naomi Hirose said in a briefing this week. “We are getting more understanding that the risk gets higher unless we solve the underground water issue.
Fishing culture has deep historical roots in Japan. The country imports more seafood than any other and eats 6 percent of the world’s fish harvest with only 2 percent of the global population, United Nations data show.
In the wake of the Fukushima accident, all fishing off the prefecture’s coast was banned by the government. Restrictions were eased in June 2012, though catches were limited to 16 types of marine life including snow crabs and flying squid.
Fish caught off the coast of Fukushima must be tested for radiation before being allowed to go to market, though the number of marine products failing to meet safety standards dropped to 5.4 percent this year from 53 percent in 2011, according to the Cabinet office.
According to Japanese negotiation norms, even with the legal right to pursue a vital course of action, Tepco can’t act without ‘‘seeking acceptance of the other party,” said Daniel Aldrich, an associate professor of political science at Purdue University who focuses on Japan and disaster recovery.
“Even with the urgency of the situation, this norm dominates,” Aldrich said by e-mail.
Abe and his Cabinet aren’t able to make an executive decision on turning the bypass on, said Andrew DeWit, a professor of political economy and public finance at Rikkyo University in Tokyo.
“They’re stuck because of a legacy of obfuscation, incompetence, mishaps, and the incredible complexity of this trauma that’s 200 kilometers from Tokyo,” he said. “If you want to hand the opposition a perfect gift, you say: ‘Ok, we’re going to pump radioactive water into the sea and we are going to ignore what the fishermen have to say.’”
Abe’s options are complicated by his plans to reinvigorate the economy, which relies on restarting some of Japan’s 50 nuclear reactors. All but two sit idle due to public safety concerns since the Fukushima disaster.
The prime minister’s economic revival plan also includes a push for Japan to join a trade pact with Pacific nations, which may damage domestic agriculture and the nation’s fisheries
Fishermen form a key interest group in the debate over Japan’s trade talks, DeWit said.
“If you run roughshod over the fishermen” it will backfire when Abe asks the public for support of his economic agenda and nuclear restarts, he said.
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