Japan wants to dump nuclear plant’s tainted water. Fishermen fear the worst. — The New York Times

IWAKI, Japan — The overpowering earthquake and tsunami that ripped through northern Japan in March 2011 took so much from Tatsuo Niitsuma, a commercial fisherman in this coastal city in Fukushima Prefecture.

The tsunami pulverized his fishing boat. It demolished his home. Most devastating of all, it took the life of his daughter.

Now, nearly nine years after the disaster, Mr. Niitsuma, 77, is at risk of losing his entire livelihood, too, as the government considers releasing tainted water from a nuclear power plant destroyed by the tsunami’s waves.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s cabinet and the Tokyo Electric Power Company — the operator of the Fukushima Daiichi plant, where a triple meltdown led to the worst nuclear crisis since Chernobyl — must decide what to do with more than one million tons of contaminated water stored in about 1,000 giant tanks on the plant site.

On Monday, Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry proposed gradually releasing the water into the ocean or allowing it to evaporate, saying a controlled discharge into the sea would “stably dilute and disperse” it. The ministry ruled out alternatives like continuing to store it in tanks or injecting it deep into the ground. Mr. Abe’s cabinet will make the final decision.

The water becomes contaminated as it is pumped through the reactors to cool melted fuel that is still too hot and radioactive to remove. For years, the power company, known as Tepco, said that treatment of the water — which involves sending it through a powerful filtration system to remove most radioactive material — was making it safe to release.

But it is actually more radioactive than the authorities have previously publicized. Officials say that it will be treated again, and that it will then be safe for release.

Regardless of government assurances, if the water is discharged into the sea, it will most likely destroy the livelihoods of hundreds of fishermen like Mr. Niitsuma. Consumers are already worried about the safety of Fukushima seafood, and dumping the water would compound the fears.

It would “kill the industry and take away the life of the boats,” he said. “The fish won’t sell.”

With Fukushima preparing to host baseball games during the Summer Olympics next year, and the plant running out of land on which to build storage tanks, the debate has taken on a sense of urgency.

Until last year, Tepco indicated that with the vast majority of the water, all but one type of radioactive material — tritium, an isotope of hydrogen that experts say poses a relatively low risk to human health — had been removed to levels deemed safe for discharge under Japanese government standards.

But last summer, the power company acknowledged that only about a fifth of the stored water had been effectively treated.

Last month, the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry briefed reporters and diplomats about the water stored in Fukushima. More than three-quarters of it, the ministry said, still contains radioactive material other than tritium — and at higher levels than the government considers safe for human health.

The authorities say that in the early years of processing the deluge of water flowing through the reactors, Tepco did not change filters in the decontamination system frequently enough. The company said it would re-treat the water to filter out the bulk of the nuclear particles, making it safe to release into the ocean.

Some experts and local residents say it is difficult to trust such assurances.

“The government and Tepco were hiding the fact that the water was still contaminated,” said Kazuyoshi Satoh, a member of the city assembly in Iwaki.

“Because next year is the Tokyo Olympics, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe wants to present the image that everything is ‘under control,’” said Mr. Satoh, referring to a speech by the Japanese leader to the International Olympic Committee when Tokyo was bidding to host the 2020 Games.

The power company acknowledged that it had not made it easy for the public to get information. The water treatment data “has not been presented in a manner that is easy to understand,” said Ryounosuke Takanori, a Tepco spokesman.

“As long as the water was stored in the tanks, we thought it didn’t matter whether the water” exceeded safety standards for discharge, said Junichi Matsumoto, a general manager in the Fukushima Daiichi decontamination and decommissioning office.

Mr. Niitsuma, for whom fishing is not just a livelihood but also a balm against grief over the loss of his daughter, said he thought both Tepco and the government needed to come clean.

“I want them to see the reality squarely and disclose information fully,” said Mr. Niitsuma, who goes out alone on his two-ton boat at dawn three times a week.

His wife, Yoko, waits on the pier. On a recent morning, she helped drag the nets out of the boat and dump squirming octopus, flounder and a few red gurnard into buckets that the couple loaded onto a small flatbed truck to drive to a warehouse where wholesalers bid on the fish.

Mrs. Niitsuma said she didn’t believe the government was looking out for Fukushima’s fishing families. “They are talking about discharging the water,” she said. “That itself means they are not thinking about us.”

The question of whether the water could be decontaminated to safe levels is a matter of degree, scientists say.

If the water is processed so that the only radioactive materials that remain are low levels of tritium, said Kazuya Idemitsu, a professor of nuclear engineering at Kyushu University, releasing it into the ocean would be “the best solution in terms of cost and safety.”

Mr. Idemitsu added that functioning nuclear plants around the world release diluted water containing tritium into the ocean.

Some scientists said they would need proof before believing that the Fukushima water was treated to safe levels.

“I want to see the numbers after they’ve removed these additional radionuclides,” said Ken Buesseler, a senior scientist in marine chemistry and geochemistry at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts. “Then, and only then, can I make a judgment on the quality of the rationale for releasing it or the consequences of releasing it.”

Government officials argue that the water is not so much a scientific problem as a perceptual one.

“If the water is discharged into the ocean, the price of seafood products may drop, or consumers won’t want to buy them at all,” said Shuji Okuda, director for decommissioning and contaminated water management at the economy and trade ministry. “So even though there is no scientific evidence that the water is dangerous, we are worried about the effects.”

More than 20 countries still have import restrictions on Japanese seafood and other agricultural products that were imposed after the 2011 disaster. Earlier this year, the European Union lifted its ban on some products.

In Fukushima, the fishing industry brings only about 15 percent of its pre-disaster catch levels to market. Every haul is sampled and screened in labs run by Fukushima’s prefectural government and the fisheries cooperative.

According to the co-op, the central government currently prohibits the sale of only one species, a rare type of skate.

Tadaaki Sawada, the co-op’s division chief, said that if the water was discharged, buyers would be unlikely to believe government safety assurances.

“Most people can live without fully understanding the details of radioactivity,” Mr. Sawada said. “They can just say ‘because I don’t understand fully, I won’t buy Fukushima fish.’”

In the prefecture, where thousands of residents never returned after evacuating, those who have come back harbor lingering doubts.

“In the corner of my mind, I wonder if it is safe or not,” Keiko Nagayama, 65, said as she browsed at a seafood freezer in Naraha, a hamlet in the original 12-mile exclusion zone around the Fukushima plant.

A government evacuation order was lifted in 2015. Although flounder and Pacific saury from Iwaki were on sale, Ms. Nagayama chose flounder from Hokkaido, in far northern Japan.

Yukiei Matsumoto, Naraha’s mayor, declined to offer an opinion on the idea of water disposal from the nuclear plant.

“Nuclear policy is central government policy,” Mr. Matsumoto said. “The contaminated water is their business.”

Naraha is one of several Fukushima towns where the central government has spent heavily to draw people back to their communities.

Just 3,877 people — a little over half of the original population — have returned. Tokyo has devoted large sums to subsidize a new school, a strip mall and a new arena that cost 4 billion yen, or about $37 million.

On a recent afternoon, a smattering of people worked out in the gym, while just one man used the 25-meter swimming pool in the arena complex.

Yukari Nakamura, 33, a local artist, had been hired to paint murals on the walls and windows. Her husband, Yuuki, and two young children were the only family in a spacious playroom.

Ms. Nakamura said a Fukushima label on fish gave her pause. “My heart aches to reject the seafood, and I feel such pain not being able to recommend it,” she said, tearing up. “I don’t want to hurt the fishermen who caught it, but it is so complicated.” “

by Motoko Rich and Makiko Inoue

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Regulator urges Tepco to release treated radioactive water from damaged Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant into the sea — The Japan Times

” A decision should be made sometime this year over whether to release into the sea water containing radioactive tritium from the crisis-hit Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant, the chief of Japan’s nuclear regulator said Thursday, emphasizing it would pose no danger to human health.

“We will face a new challenge if a decision (about the release) is not made this year,” Nuclear Regulation Authority Chairman Toyoshi Fuketa told Naraha Mayor Yukiei Matsumoto, referring to the more than 1 million tons of coolant water and groundwater that has accumulated at the crippled facility. Naraha is located close to the Fukushima No.1 plant.

Fuketa said releasing the water into the sea after dilution is the only solution, saying “it is scientifically clear that there will be no impact on marine products or to the environment.”

Currently, Fukushima plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings Inc. regularly filters contaminated coolant water and ground water from the damaged plant. The processed water is stored in hundreds of water tanks set up within the plant’s compound.

Dangerous radioactive materials are removed during filtration, but tritium — which is difficult to separate from water but relatively harmless to human health — remains.

“(Tepco) has been building new tanks, but it will eventually run out of land,” an NRA official later told The Japan Times.

With limited storage space for water tanks, observers warn that tritium could start leaking from the Fukushima plant.

The nuclear regulator’s chief underlined the need for the government and Tepco to make a decision quickly, saying, “It will take two or three years to prepare for the water’s release into the sea.”

At other nuclear power plants, water containing tritium is routinely dumped into the sea after it is diluted. The regulator has been calling for the release of the water after diluting it to a density lower than standards set by law.

According to the NRA, an average pressured-water reactor for commercial use in Japan usually dumps 60 trillion becquerels of tritium a year into the sea.

Local fishermen are, however, worried about the negative impact from the water discharge — in particular the effect of groundless rumors regarding the safety of marine life near the Fukushima plant. In the face of their opposition, Tepco has not yet reached a decision on how to deal with the stored water.

At the Fukushima plant contaminated water is building up partly because groundwater is seeping into the reactor buildings and mixing with water that has been made radioactive in the process of cooling the damaged reactors.

According to the NRA, there were 650 water tanks within the compound at the Fukushima No. 1 plant as of last month.

The density of tritium in the water ranges from 1 million to 5 million becquerels per liter. Legal restrictions require a nuclear power plant to dump tritium-tainted water after diluting it to 60,000 becquerels per liter, according to the NRA.

On March 11, 2011, tsunami inundated the six-reactor plant, which is located on ground 10 meters above sea level, and flooded its power supply facilities.

Reactor cooling systems were crippled and the Nos. 1 to 3 reactors suffered fuel meltdowns in the world’s worst nuclear catastrophe since the 1986 Chernobyl disaster. ”

by Kyodo, The Japan Times

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Fukushima agrees to accept ‘low-level’ nuclear waste from 2011 disaster — The Japan Times

Fukushima Gov. Masao Uchibori told Environment Minister Tamayo Marukawa Friday that his prefecture will accept relatively ‘low-level’ radioactive waste that resulted from the March 2011 nuclear disaster in Fukushima.

Fukushima is the first to give consent among six prefectures where final disposal of such waste is planned by the central government.

It follows a meeting that also included Koichi Miyamoto, mayor of the town of Tomioka, which hosts the existing facility where the waste will be disposed, and Yukiei Matsumoto, mayor of the town of Naraha, which accommodates a transportation route to the facility.

Marukawa said the government will make the utmost effort to deal with waste disposal while securing safety and implementing measures to rebuild the region.

On Thursday, both mayors accepted the national government’s plan during talks with the governor, on condition that the government take measures to prevent the project from hindering reconstruction in the municipalities. They found it necessary to expedite disposal of so-called designated radioactive waste as the government is moving to lift evacuation orders still in place in the prefecture.

In talks with Miyamoto and Matsumoto, the governor said the prefecture made the difficult decision, believing that the facility was necessary to recover the prefecture’s environment.

But the governor said the facility should only accept waste from Fukushima, and urged the government to maintain its policy of disposing of waste in the prefecture in which it originates.

Currently, the nation’s designated radioactive waste totals some 166,000 tons across 12 prefectures. Although local opposition remains strong, the government hopes Fukushima’s decision will encourage other prefectures to follow suit.

Subject to the final disposal at the facility will be designated waste that contains up to 100,000 becquerels of radioactive substances per kilogram, such as rice straw and debris at districts evacuated after the disaster at Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.

The facility is expected to handle some 650,000 cubic meters of such waste.

In December 2013, the national government presented the final disposal plan to the local governments and urged them to accept it. Taking into account requests from local communities, the government showed in November this year regional economic promotion measures, such as the creation of an industrial complex, and additional safety measures.

On Wednesday, the prefecture showed the two towns its plan to extend subsidies worth ¥10 billion for such measures as dealing with rumors and urged them to agree to the disposal plan. ”

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Evacuation order lifted completely for town of Naraha near wrecked Fukushima plant — The Japan Times

” FUKUSHIMA – The town of Naraha in Fukushima Prefecture celebrated Saturday, following the midnight lifting of the government’s evacuation order 4½ years after the eruption of the March 2011 nuclear disaster.

Naraha became the first of seven radiation-tainted municipalities in the prefecture to be entirely cleared for repopulation since the triple-reactor meltdown following the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami.

“The clock that was stopped has now begun to tick,” Naraha Mayor Yukiei Matsumoto said at a ceremony held to promote the early return of local residents as well as the reconstruction of their hometown.

About 100 people took part in the event, including central government officials.

Most of the town is within the 20-km no-go zone set up around the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant, which spewed radiation into the air and sea after the earthquake-triggered tsunami knocked its power out, prompting the meltdowns.

Naraha is “at the starting line at last,” Matsumoto told reporters early Saturday, adding that he would continue working toward reconstruction.

Naraha had a registered population of 7,368 residing in 2,694 households as of Tuesday. According to a survey by the government and others, some 46 percent of the residents hope to return.

But only a portion is expected to return immediately, including 780 in some 350 households who were cleared for long-term stays.

The central and town governments will reopen a medical clinic in the town in October, while a new prefectural clinic is slated to be built as early as February.

To handle sudden illnesses among the elderly, medical services will be boosted, such as by distributing emergency buzzers to people who need them.

To meet requests for shopping services, a supermarket in the town launched free delivery in July. A publicly built, privately run shopping center with a supermarket and do-it-yourself store is due in fiscal 2016.

To address lingering radiation concerns, dosimeters will be handed out and 24-hour monitoring will be conducted at a water filtration plant. Also, tap water will be tested at households worried about radioactive contamination. ”

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Nuclear evacuees face dilemma over returning home — The Japan Times

” More than four years since Satoru Yamauchi abandoned his noodle restaurant to escape radiation spreading from the tsunami-wrecked Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant, the central government is almost ready to declare it is safe for him to go home.

But like many of the displaced, he’s not sure if he wants to. “I want my old life back, but I don’t think it’s possible here,” he said on a recent visit to the dustysoba buckwheat noodle restaurant in Nahara that he ran for more than two decades.

The father of four has lived in Tokyo since evacuating from his home to escape toxic pollution spewing from the crippled reactors hit by gigantic tsunami in March 2011.

Meltdowns in three of the reactors — 20 km away — blanketed vast tracts of land with isotopes of iodine and cesium, products of nuclear reactions that are hazardous to health if ingested, inhaled or absorbed.

Of the municipalities immediately surrounding the nuclear plant, which were totally evacuated, Naraha will be the first where people will be allowed to return.

After years of decontamination work, where teams remove topsoil, wash exposed road surfaces and wipe down buildings, the government will in September lift the evacuation order and declare it a safe place to live.

Other towns and villages will follow in the coming months and years, with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government aiming to lift many evacuation orders by March 2017.

A year after that, the monthly ¥100,000 ($800) in “psychological compensation” that plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co. has been ordered to pay to evacuees will cease.

Activists say despite government assurances, many areas still show high levels of radiation, and many are unfit for habitation.

They say that for people who abandoned now-almost-worthless — but still mortgaged — homes, allowing Tepco to stop payments amounts to forcing them to return.

Environmental campaign group Greenpeace has carried out a study of radiation contamination in Iitate, a heavily forested 200 sq.-km district that sits around 40 km northwest of the crippled Fukushima No. 1 plant. Iitate is also being eyed for resettlement.

The town is significant because the government did not order its evacuation until more than a month after the nuclear disaster started, but post-facto modeling of the radiation plume showed Iitate was right in its path.

Greenpeace’s new study, published Tuesday, says only a quarter of Iitate has been decontaminated — predominantly roads, homes and a short buffer strip of woodland around inhabited areas.

“Levels of radiation in both decontaminated and non-decontaminated areas . . . make a return of the former inhabitants of Iitate not possible from a public health . . . perspective,” the report says.

A person living in the area could expect to absorb 20 times the internationally accepted level for public exposure of radiation, Greenpeace says.

“The levels of radiation in the forests, which pre-accident were an integral part of (life), are equivalent to radiation levels within the Chernobyl 30-km exclusion zone,” the report says, referring to the former Soviet plant that saw one of the world’s worst nuclear accidents.

“Over 118,000 people were permanently evacuated from the 30-km zone around Chernobyl in April 1986, with no prospect or plans for them ever returning.”

The woodlands of Iitate are “acting as a long lasting reservoir for radiocesium and as a large source for future recontamination in the environment beyond the forest,” the report says. That makes the very notion of “decontamination” problematic, says Jan Vande Putte, a nuclear campaigner with Greenpeace, who was in Iitate last week. “There is a risk that the migration of radiation will re-contaminate decontaminated areas,” he said.

In Naraha, which is southeast of the plant, government data show contamination levels are much lower than Iitate. A town survey says there are plenty of residents eager to return and rebuild.

The end of the evacuation order is “based on citizens’ real voices and plans to accelerate reconstruction,” pro-resettlement Mayor Yukiei Matsumoto said this month, adding a “prolonged evacuee life is not desirable.”

Supporters of returning point out that while the nuclear disaster is not officially recorded as having directly killed anyone, the stresses and strains of evacuee life exact their own price. Government figures show almost 1,000 people in Fukushima Prefecture have died from physical and psychological fatigue.

Still, the choice is hard. “You cannot work on a farm, you cannot grow rice, and you cannot pick wild plants either,” said Yamauchi, whose specialty used to be tempura with seasonal wild vegetables. “(The restaurant) is my everything. . . . it was my life. There is nothing good about going back.” ”

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