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Businesses worry about reputational damage from Fukushima water discharge

Seiji Suzuki checks on his baby sardine catches at the Otsu fishing port in Kitaibaraki, Ibaraki Prefecture.

Sep 26, 2022

The plan to discharge treated water from the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant into the ocean has been met with a wave of opposition, not only from residents of Fukushima Prefecture, but also those living in neighboring Ibaraki Prefecture.

Businesses in Ibaraki are calling for a fostering of public understanding and providing consumers with a sense of security to prevent harmful rumors from spreading.

At the Otsu fishing port in Kitaibaraki, which borders the southern part of Iwaki, Fukushima Prefecture, containers of freshly caught baby sardines are brought into processing plants one after another. The silver-colored fish shine under the late August sunlight and its lingering summer heat.

“We want to offer a taste of fresh, in-season fish,” said fisherman Seiji Suzuki, 31, who was busy landing his catches.

While keeping himself busy in a bustle of the port, Suzuki cannot shake off his anxiety about the future, as the Fukushima No. 1 plant, located about 70 kilometers away, plans to discharge processed water containing radioactive tritium into the ocean as early as next spring.

“The ocean (off the coast of Fukushima and Ibaraki prefectures) is connected. If the water is released, the image of seafood from Ibaraki Prefecture will be tarnished, and sales will be hit again,” Suzuki lamented.

According to the Otsu Fisheries Cooperative, seafood from Ibaraki Prefecture, like that from Fukushima Prefecture, is distributed throughout Japan as “Joban-mono,” referring to the seafood culled from the waters off the coast of both prefectures.

Major species from Ibaraki Prefecture include baby sardine, flounder, and anglerfish. “It’s almost the same as those in Fukushima,” a member of the fisheries cooperative said.

Ibaraki Prefecture’s fisheries output declined by about 30% after the Fukushima meltdown disaster, according to the fisheries ministry. Since 2012, the output has gradually recovered, and in recent years it has exceeded the pre-accident level due to an increase in fish catches.

However, radiation sampling inspections for almost all edible fish species are still being conducted. According to Ibaraki Prefecture, there has not been a discussion about abolishing the inspections. “Many consumers are concerned about the safety of seafood. This is even more so since there are plans to discharge treated water into the ocean,” a prefectural official said.

According to a survey conducted by the Ibaraki Shimbun newspaper of voters in the prefecture at the time of Upper House election this summer, 44.3% of respondents were opposed to the water discharge, more than the 35.5% who were supportive. The remaining 20.2% said that they were not sure or gave no answer. By age and gender, young respondents and women were particularly cautious about the water discharge.

Yoshinori Sakamoto, director of the Otsu Fisheries Cooperative, stresses there is no border between waters off Fukushima and Ibaraki prefectures. “If treated water is released into the ocean, Ibaraki seafood will suffer reputational damages as well,” he said.

The government may disseminate information about the scientific safety of the products, but unless the information is widely shared by consumers and a sense of security is fostered, consumers will be reluctant to buy the products, which will lead to price falls, he said.

Looking back on the many years of suffering from harmful rumors following the Fukushima nuclear accident, Sakamoto said, “We have finally come this far. It is a matter of life and death, and I am opposed to the water release under the current situation, where providing consumers with a sense of security is not guaranteed.”

A third nightmare

This is not the first time Ibaraki Prefecture has faced reputational damage from nuclear incidents. The September 1999 criticality accident at JCO, a nuclear fuel processing company in Tokai, Ibaraki Prefecture, caused extensive damages to residents and businesses in the region.

In the accident at the Tokai Plant of JCO, three workers were heavily exposed to radiation after a nuclear fission chain reaction occurred by accident, and two of them subsequently died. More than 600 residents of the surrounding area were also exposed to radiation, and more than 300,000 residents were forced to evacuate or stay indoors.

According to a report by Ibaraki Prefecture, a wide range of industries were affected, including agriculture, livestock, fisheries, commerce and tourism, with damages totaling more than ¥15 billion.

Businesses affected by the JCO criticality accident and the Fukushima No. 1 meltdown disaster are deeply concerned about a “third nightmare” from the planned discharge of treated water from the Fukushima plant.

Chizuko Suda runs a seafood restaurant in Hitachinaka, Ibaraki Prefecture.

Chizuko Suda, 57, who runs a seafood restaurant near the Nakaminato fishing port in Hitachinaka, Ibaraki Prefecture, is one of those who experienced the reputational damage caused by the 1999 incident.

Suda’s restaurant is located about 15 km south of the JCO plant. She remembers that the number of customers dropped to less than half of what it was before the accident, although she does not know the amount of damage because she was not the owner at the time. “It took three years for things to get back to normal,” she recalls.

Twelve years after the JCO accident, the Fukushima No. 1 accident struck. Almost every day, tourists asked if it was safe to visit the area around her restaurant and if the seafood was safe. Each time, she told them that tests for radioactive materials had confirmed that the area was safe to visit. Even so, sales dropped to 20% to 30% of what they were before the accident. Once again, she felt the pain of harmful rumors.

After going through such experiences twice, Suda wonders if there is any way to prevent it from happening again with the release of treated water into the ocean. The key is to foster public understanding, she says. “If it is scientifically safe, that fact should be released nationwide. This would be an opportunity for the public to think about the water discharge issue as their own.”

She has relatives in the coastal areas of Fukushima Prefecture, and she feels that it is “unacceptable to force only the people in Fukushima to bear the burden.”

Meanwhile, the fishing industry is not the only businesses concerned about the impact of water discharge.

Hiroyuki Onizawa, 60, a dried sweet potato processor in Hitachinaka who was affected by both accidents, also urges the government to take a cautious approach. “It would be better not to discharge,” he says, stressing that the image of Ibaraki Prefecture could be worsened.

Yoshihisa Takeshi, 46, who runs an inn in Kitaibaraki that offers Joban-mono anglerfish as its specialty, feels the need to dispose of treated water. “We have no choice but to discharge it,” he said.

On the other hand, he called on the government to provide support for a wide range of businesses in addition to taking measures against harmful rumors. The discharge “will definitely have a negative effect,” he said.


October 1, 2022 - Posted by | Fuk 2022 | , , ,

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