TOKYO — Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has insisted that seafood caught near the crippled Fukushima nuclear plant is safe to eat. Scientists have voiced concerns, however, that radioactive isotopes could accumulate in fish and pose a danger to human health.
Well before dawn on a cool October morning in Soma port, 30 kilometers north of the crippled Fukushima nuclear plant, fishermen prepare their nets and get ready to head out to sea.
Fishing resumed here last month, following the lifting of a ban imposed after it emerged in July that radioactive water had leaked into the ocean.
As the fishermen prepared to cast their nets once again, the head of the cooperative, Hiroyuki Sato, offered his encouragement.
Sato said that due to the problem of the contaminated water, he knows that everyone has various concerns. He said in embarking on this trial fishing, they must show that the cooperative in Soma Futaba is willing to continue fishing.
The fishermen are permitted to land 16 types of seafood. About 95 percent of the catch is discarded. Many fishermen, like Toshihiro Miharu, question the future of their livelihood.
Miharu said the fishermen are worried about whether they can actually sell the catch.
Opening a new session of parliament this month, Abe insisted the leaks do not pose a threat to human health.
Abe said the local fishermen are suffering from a bad reputation founded on falsehood, and that the effects on food and water are well below the limits for radiation levels.
Just offshore from the Fukushima plant, scientists from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in the United States are working alongside their Japanese counterparts, monitoring radiation levels. Among them is senior marine chemist Ken Buesseler.
“That radiation is moving across the Pacific, but it gets much, much lower even short distances offshore,” he said.
Buesseler said a bigger concern is the accumulation of isotopes in marine life. Earlier this year, cesium isotopes from Fukushima were found in tuna caught off California.
“The tuna that were caught off San Diego with the Fukushima cesium isotopes, they were 10 to 20 times lower than they had been off Japan. Now the new releases, the leak from the tanks - they’re changing in character. Strontium 90 has become of more concern because it’s a bone-seeking isotope. That will stay in fish much longer,” he said.
TEPCO, the owner of the Fukushima plant, is building an underground frozen wall to prevent contaminated water leaking into the sea. It is also testing a system to decontaminate the water.
Rianne Teule, nuclear expert at the environmental organization Greenpeace, says it is not clear whether those technologies will work.
“They already spent a lot of money trying to implement them. What Greenpeace wants is that the government really gets in international advice, gets as much support as possible to try to find the right solution for this problem.”
The livelihoods of the fishermen of Fukushima depend on finding that solution.