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Japan's fishermen struggle to stay afloat amid fish bans, radiated water releases

The discovery of fish carrying high levels of radioactive materials off the Pacific Coast is stoking concerns about the viability of Japan's seafood industry.

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Radioactive waters

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Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco), the utility that operates the Fukushima plant, said Wednesday it had finally plugged a crack in the seaside pit at the No. 2 reactor with sodium silicate, a form of water-glass. But it is still releasing some 11,500 tons of low-level radiated water into the ocean to give it room to store more highly contaminated seawater that has been used to cool the reactors.

Though Japan’s officials insist the low-level dumping will have minimal impact on the environment, both local fishermen and environmental experts say that they are not happy with the decision.

A group of individuals who work in the fishing industry in the northeast visited Tepco headquarters this week to deliver an open letter to management, in which they called the ongoing release of radioactive water into the ocean “an unforgivable act.”

“The water is being dumped directly into the sea without checking for plutonium, which is unacceptable,” says Lauri Myllyvirta, an energy expert with Greenpeace who is currently working with the Japanese arm of the environmental organization to monitor the effects of the radiation leaks from the Fukushima plant.

“The information that has been released is alarmingly limited as it covers only the soluble substances such as cesium and iodine. However, there are other particulates that are being released in water from the plant, which has come into direct contact with the fuel rods, and there is no data on them,” Mr. Myllyvirta says.

He also says measurements taken from the sediment on the seabed, where deposits of radioactive material are likely to build up, haven't been released.

While those who work in Japan's fishing industry criticize the authorities for being too strict in setting the levels of radiation in fish that are potentially harmful to humans – the same levels it has dictated for vegetables – Myllyvirta says they are not going far enough: “The Japanese government is maintaining as its safe level one that is double international standards.”

“Cesium has a half-life of 10 to 20 years in the ocean, based on data recorded after Chernobyl. The highest concentrations of this are likely to build up in fish higher up the food chain, such as tuna. They are predatory fish that can live for 15 years and the buildup in their muscles will occur after a considerable time lag,” says Myllyvirta.

Fishermen working in Ibaraki Prefecture, adjacent to Fukushima, this week caught specimens of an eel-like fish known as kounago, or young sand launce, that had double the new limit of iodine-131 in them. The crews have voluntarily decided to stop catching the fish. On Saturday, levels of iodine-131 in seawater tested directly outside the plant were found to be 7.5 million times the legal limit, though experts say the substance dilutes rapidly in the ocean.

Compensation?

The government has announced that Tepco is to establish a fund of up 1 trillion yen ($11.7 billion) to cover the cost of cleanups and compensation after the crisis at Fukushima. Provisional payments to evacuated households are already being scheduled, with more for affected farmers on the way. Compensation for fishermen is now to be added to the list.

However, even once payments are made and the area is declared safe again for fishing, fishermen worry that the stigma of the name Fukushima will now blight the local industry for decades to come.

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