Fukushima residents react cautiously after the release of treated water from the destroyed nuclear power plant began

IWAKI, Japan – Prices at fish auctions at a port south of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant on Friday fell amid uncertainty over how seafood consumers will respond to the release of treated and diluted radioactive waste water into the ocean.

The plant, damaged in the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, began dumping treated water into the Pacific on Thursday amid protests at home and in surrounding countries that have added political and diplomatic pressure to economic worries aggravated.

Hideaki Igari, a middleman at the Numanouchi fishing port, said prices for flounder, Fukushima’s signature fish called joban-mono, were down more than 10% at Friday morning’s auction, the first since the water release began.

Decades of release have been fiercely opposed by fishing associations and criticized by neighboring countries. In response, China immediately banned imports of seafood from Japan, adding to the concerns of the fishing community and related companies.

A citizen radiation testing center said it was receiving inquiries and that more people could bring food, water and other samples as radiation data is now an important barometer in deciding what to eat.

Japanese fisheries associations fear the release will further damage the reputation of seafood from the Fukushima region. They are still struggling to repair the damage their company suffered from the meltdown at the power plant after the earthquake and tsunami.

“After all these years of struggle, we now have this water as the price in the fish market is finally stabilizing,” Igari said after Friday’s auction. “Fishermen fear the prices of the fish they catch for a living could fall again and worry about their future lives.”

The Japanese government and the plant’s operator, Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings, say the water must be released to make room for the plant to be decommissioned and to prevent accidental spills of undertreated water. Much of the water held in tanks still contains radioactive materials in excess of releasable levels.

Some of the plant’s wastewater is recycled after treatment as coolant, with the remainder being stored in around 1,000 tanks that are 98% full of their 1.37 million tonne capacity. The tanks cover much of the complex and will need to be cleared to make way for new equipment needed for the decommissioning process, officials say.

Authorities say that after treatment and dilution, the wastewater is safer than international standards require and its environmental impact will be negligible. On Friday, the first seawater samples taken after the release were well below the legally permissible values, the energy supplier announced.

However, after a series of accidental and intentional releases of contaminated water from the power plant early in the disaster, deep feelings and distrust towards the government and TEPCO are felt in Fukushima, particularly among the fishing community.

There are fears the release, which TEPCO says will last 30 years or until the plant closes, could mean a difficult future for younger people in the fishing town, where many businesses are family-run.

Fukushima’s current catches are already about a fifth of pre-disaster levels as the number of fishermen has declined and catches have shrunk.

The government has allocated 80 billion yen ($550 million) to support seafood fishing and processing and fight possible reputational damage by promoting campaigns to promote Fukushima’s joban-mono and processed seafood. TEPCO has pledged to deal “appropriately” with reputational damage and those harmed by China’s export ban.

Tetsu Nozaki, head of Fukushima Prefectural Fisheries Cooperatives, said in a statement Thursday that the fishing community’s concerns will continue as long as the water is released.

“Our only desire is to continue fishing in our hometown for generations to come, just as we did before the accident,” Nozaki said.

Fish prices depend largely on wholesaler and consumer sentiment in the Tokyo area, where much of the Fukushima catch goes.

At Friday’s auction at Numanouchi Port, the price of flounder fell from its usual level of about 3,500 yen (US$24) per kilogram (2.2 pounds) to about 3,000 yen (US$20), said Igari, the middleman.

“I suspect that the result is due to the start of the release of treated water from Fukushima Daiichi and the fear of its impact,” he said.

Igari said the discharge was discouraging but hopes careful testing can prove the safety of her fish. “From a consumer perspective of food safety at home, I think data is the best barometer,” he said.

At Mother’s Radiation Lab Fukushima in Iwaki, a citizen testing center called Tarachine, tests were performed on water samples, including tritium levels, for seawater that the lab collected near the Fukushima Daiichi power plant prior to release.

Laboratory head Ai Kimura said anyone can bring food, water or even soil, although the lab has large backlogs because testing takes time.

She joined the lab after regretting that she might not have fully protected her daughters due to the lack of information and knowledge when the disaster began. She says independent test results are important not out of distrust of government data, but because “we’ve learned over the last 12 years the importance of testing to get data” on what mothers want to know in order to serve them safe and healthy food children and families.

Kimura said people have different views on security – some are OK with government standards, others want them to be as close to zero as possible.

“It is very difficult to make everyone feel safe. … So we’re running tests to visualize data on food from different places and give people more choices,” she said.

Kimura said the lab’s tests have shown Fukushima fish to be safe over the past few years, and she enjoys eating local fish.

“It’s perfectly fine to eat fish that doesn’t contain radiation,” she said.

But now the release of treated water will raise new questions, she said.

Aeon, a major supermarket chain that has tested cesium and iodine levels in fish, announced plans to also test for tritium, a radionuclide inextricably linked to water.

Katsumasa Okawa, a fishmonger and restaurateur who was at one of his four stores on Thursday, said customer numbers were sparse after the facility began the final stages of releasing treated water at 1 p.m., and media reports reported on the development .

But on Friday, he said, his seafood restaurant Yamako, next to Iwaki Central Station, seemed to be operating as usual, with customers coming in and out at lunchtime.

Personally, he looks forward to the sewage discharge as a major step toward nuclear power plant decommissioning, Okawa said. “I feel better when I think about these tanks finally going away.”

Okawa, who said he voluntarily tested his products several years after the disaster, is concerned about a return to the days of radiation testing and data as a benchmark for what to eat.

“I think too much test data is just a concern,” he said. “I’m confident in what I’m selling and I’ll just keep working on it.”

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