Despite his age, 63-year-old Kazuo Niitsuma believes there are many more years of fishing ahead of him. The sea is in his family’s blood, he says. His octogenarian father began working on boats when he was 12, and only retired three years ago.
However, even if his health permits, Niitsuma knows he may never again get the chance to board his boat and head out into the Pacific in search of sole, whitebait, flounder and greenling.
The greatest threat to Niitsuma’s livelihood, and that of thousands of other fishermen in Hisanohama, a small fishing town 200km northeast of Tokyo, lies just up the coast at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant.
The Ministry of the Environment recently announcement that 300 tonnes of contaminated groundwater from Fukushima Dai-ichi is still seeping over or around barriers into the Pacific every day, more than two years after it was struck by a tsunami in March 2011.
Government officials said they suspected the leaks had started soon after the accident, which resulted in a nuclear meltdown.
The admission by the ministry, confirmed by Tokyo Electric Power Co (TEPCO), which runs the plant, is likely to keep Hisanohama’s 40 fishing boats in port for the foreseeable future. TEPCO’s failure to handle the contaminated water — and accusations that it tried to cover up the leaks — is a serious setback to attempts to clean up Fukushima Dai-ichi, 18 months after the government declared it had reached a “safe” state known as cold shutdown.
“I haven’t been able to fish since the tsunami,” Niitsuma said inside the concrete shell of the port’s main building, whose foundations sank by up to a meter because of the force of the March 2011 quake.
“People want to be reassured that they are buying fish that is safe to eat, and we can’t give them that guarantee at the moment,” he said.
Evidence that quantities of radioactive caesium-134 and caesium-137 in locally caught fish have fallen to levels close to the government-set safe limit of 100 becquerels per kilogram is scant consolation, Niitsuma said.
“At times like this, it feels like the nuclear problem will never be resolved, and for that, TEPCO and the government must take responsibility,” he said.
In a furious letter to TEPCO president Naomi Hirose, Japan’s national fisheries federation said the water leakages were an “act of treason to all fishing industry workers and to all members of the public in Japan.”
The government imposed a ban on fishing in the Fukushima area after the tsunami, which killed more than 18,000 people along Japan’s northeast coast and triggered the worst nuclear accident in the country’s history.
Niitsuma’s 15m boat, Sueyoshi Maru, has been idle ever since.
Unable to make a living from a sea poisoned by radiation, the town’s 70 fishermen earn money clearing tsunami debris; the only fish they catch are taken not to market, but to makeshift labs where they are tested for radiation from the plant, located just 19km to the north.
TEPCO pumps out 400 tonnes of water a day — enough to fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool — of groundwater into the basements of damaged reactor buildings. There, it mixes with highly radioactive water that has already been used to cool the melted fuel, which is thought to lie deep inside the reactors.
The firm had consistently denied there were any leaks, saying it had contained excess water by hardening soil with sodium silicate to form a chemical “wall” around areas thought to be at the greatest risk.