Fukushima nuclear disaster

Fukushima Daiichi plant's nuclear leaks poison the Pacific and a way of life

The earthquake and tsunami that hit Fukushima have left a lingering toxic legacy and despondent fishermen denouncing 'act of treason'

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 11 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 11 June, 2015, 3:58pm

At 63, Kazuo Niitsuma believes he has many more years of fishing ahead of him. The sea is in his family's blood, he says. His octogenarian father began working on boats when he was 12, and retired only three years ago.

But even if his health permits, Niitsuma knows he may never again get the chance to board his boat and head out into the Pacific in search of sole, whitebait, flounder and greenling.

The greatest threat to his livelihood, and that of thousands of other fishermen in Hisanohama, a small fishing town 200 kilometres northeast of Tokyo, lies just up the coast at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.

The environment ministry recently said 300 tonnes of contaminated groundwater from the plant is still seeping into the Pacific every day, more than two years after it was hit by a tsunami in March 2011. Government officials said the leaks probably started soon after the disaster, which caused a nuclear meltdown.

The admission by the ministry, confirmed by the Tokyo Electric Power Co (Tepco), which runs the plant, is likely to keep Hisanohama's 40 fishing boats in port for the foreseeable future.

"I haven't been able to fish since the tsunami," Niitsuma said inside the concrete shell of the port's main building, whose foundations sank by up to a metre because of the force of the quake. "People want to be reassured that they are buying fish that is safe to eat, and we can't give them that guarantee at the moment."

In a furious letter to Tepco president Naomi Hirose, Japan's national fisheries federation said the water leakages were an "act of treason to all fishing industry workers and to all members of the public in Japan".

The government imposed a ban on fishing in the Fukushima area after the tsunami, which killed more than 18,000 people along the northeastern coast of Japan's main island and triggered the worst nuclear accident in the country's history.

Niitsuma's 15-metre boat, the Sueyoshi Maru, has been idle ever since. Unable to make a living from a sea poisoned by radiation, the town's 70 fishermen earn money clearing tsunami debris. The only fish they catch are taken not to market but to makeshift labs where they are tested for radiation from the plant, just 20 kilometres to the north.

Tepco pumps 400 tonnes of groundwater a day into the basements of the damaged reactor buildings. There, it mixes with highly radioactive water that has already been used to cool the melted fuel, which is thought to lie deep inside the reactors.

Tepco yesterday started pumping out radioactive groundwater to reduce leakage into the Pacific. The water will be recycled to cool the reactors.

The firm had consistently denied that there were any leaks, saying it had contained excess water by hardening soil with sodium silicate to form a chemical "wall" around areas thought to be at the greatest risk.

An official at Japan's industry ministry said last week that Tokyo estimates 300 tonnes of contaminated groundwater may be seeping into the ocean every day. Having conceded it had lost the ability to control the tainted water, Tepco promised to pump out tonnes of it and reinforce soil barriers.

It also plans to build a 1.4km wall of soil, frozen solid by coolant, around four of the plant's six reactors by July 2015, in an attempt to stop further leaks.

Tepco's sudden about-turn over the leaks has added to public anger about its handling of the crisis. The disaster forced the evacuation of 160,000 people as radiation spewed from the plant, devastating Fukushima's farming and fishing industries.

"It's like there's an allergy to the name Fukushima," said Takashi Niitsuma, head of sales at the Iwaki fisheries co-operative, of which Hisanohama is a part.

"Even if we could catch fish for sale, no one would buy them. We're talking about the Pacific Ocean, so it's not just Fukushima that's affected. If Tepco allows more water to leak into the sea, the criticism will be worldwide."

Tepco's promises to address the water problem have not even convinced pro-nuclear Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

"This is an urgent matter that needs to be addressed," Abe said last week. "Instead of leaving everything to Tepco, we need to create a firm national strategy."

Just before the tsunami hit, Kazuo Niitsuma, like many fishermen, saved his boat by steering it out to sea and into the path of the waves. More than two years on, he can't escape the feeling his act of bravery was in vain.

"The nuclear disaster has left us with no motivation," he says. "Nothing has changed, so there's nothing to look forward to."

Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse