Fukushima Fishermen Ruined by Tepco Now Key in Toxic Fight

Tokyo Electric Power Co. ruined the livelihoods of the commercial fishermen who trawled the seas off Fukushima prefecture when its leaking reactors poisoned the fishing grounds. The utility now needs their help.

Tokyo Electric has built wells and a pipeline on the hills behind the wrecked Fukushima atomic station to route groundwater into the ocean away from the plant. This will reduce the volume of water getting into reactor buildings, where it’s contaminated and then flows into the Pacific at a rate of 300 metric tons a day.

While the company has assured Fukushima fishing cooperatives the water to be piped from the hillside wouldn’t be contaminated, the fishermen have yet to sign off on the plan, citing the utility’s history of faked safety reports and cover ups. Talks with the 1,500 fishermen are now into their third month.

“We have yet to reach a conclusion” on whether the cooperative will agree to Tokyo Electric’s water bypass plan, Tetsu Nozaki, chairman of the Fukushima Prefectural Federation of Fisheries Co-operative Associations, said yesterday in Tokyo. “We will make a cool-headed decision.”

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 seeping into the facility, wrecked by the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami.

Consensus Sought

Some of those tanks are vulnerable to leaks, Tokyo Electric, or Tepco, said last week, while the groundwater is mixing with radioactive water and getting contaminated.

Japan’s trade ministry today announced its first request to the government for extra funding to handle the contaminated water problem, without specifying the sum. The Ministry of Trade and Industry has also asked for 12.5 billion yen ($127 million) to pay for next year’s reactor decomissioning costs, a 44 percent increase on the year.

Estimates say about 400 tons of groundwater flows down the hillside into the plant each day. The bypass pipeline would reduce that by about 25 percent.

“We want to reach a consensus soon,” Yoshihisa Komatsu, an official at the Fukushima fishing cooperative, said by phone on Aug. 28 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, yet Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and the ruling Liberal Democrats have told Tepco to win over the fishermen before starting up the bypass pipeline.

Tepco, Optics

“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 have 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.

Tepco said it has explained to 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.

Fishing Culture

“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.

After 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. 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.

Executive Decision

Even though the fishermen have no legal right to block Tepco’s pipeline plan, Japanese negotiation norms require “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 on the bypass pipeline, 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 drive 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.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.