IWAKI, Japan >> Prices at a fish auction at a port south of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant were mixed amid uncertainty over how seafood consumers will react to the release of treated and diluted radioactive sewage into the ocean.
The plant, which was damaged in the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, began sending treated water into the Pacific on Thursday despite protests at home and in nearby countries that add political and diplomatic pressure to economic concerns.
Hideaki Igari, a middleman at the fishing port of Numanouchi, said the price of the largest fish, Fukushima's signature fish known as Joban-mono, was more than 10 percent lower at Friday morning's auction, the first since the water draining started. Prices of a medium-sized flounder increased, but probably because of limited catches, Igari says. Others fell.
It was a relatively calm market response to the water release. But, Igari said, "we'll have to see how it goes next week."
The decades-long release has been fiercely contested by fishing groups and criticized by neighboring countries. In response, China immediately banned seafood imports from Japan, exacerbating concerns in the fishing community and related businesses.
Thousands of South Koreans took to the streets in Seoul on Saturday to condemn the sewage release and criticize the South Korean government for supporting the plan. Protesters called on Japan to store radioactive water in tanks instead of dumping it in the Pacific Ocean.
A non-military radiation testing center in Japan said it is accepting inquiries and expects more people to bring food, water and other samples as radiation data is now an important barometer of what we should eat.
Japanese fishing groups fear the release will further damage the reputation of seafood from the Fukushima area. They are still trying to repair the damage to their businesses caused by the collapse of the power plant after the earthquake and tsunami.
"We now have this water after so many years of struggle, now that the price in the fish market is finally stable," Igari said after Friday's auction. "Fishermen are concerned that the prices of the fish they catch for their livelihood may fall again and they are worried about their future existence."
The Japanese government and the plant's operator, Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings, say the water must be released to pave the way for decommissioning the plant and prevent accidental leaks of poorly treated water. Much of the water in the reservoirs still contains radioactive materials that exceed the level being released.
Some of the wastewater at the plant is recycled as coolant after treatment, and the rest is stored in about 1,000 tanks, which are filled to 98% of their 1.37 million-ton capacity. The tanks cover much of the complex and must be drained to make room for new facilities needed for the decommissioning process, officials say.
Authorities say the wastewater after treatment and dilution is safer than international standards require and the impact on the environment will be negligible. On Friday, the first seawater samples collected after the release were significantly below levels legally required to be released, the energy company said.
But due to a series of accidental and deliberate discharges of contaminated water from the plant early in the disaster, resentment and distrust of the government and TEPCO runs deep in Fukushima – especially in the fishing community.
TEPCO says the release will last 30 years or until the plant is decommissioned. People fear this could mean a difficult future for young people in the fishing village, where there are many family businesses.
Fukushima's current catch is only about one-fifth of pre-disaster levels, due to fewer fishermen and smaller catch sizes.
The government has set aside 80 billion yen ($550 million) to support fishing and seafood processing and to combat potential reputational damage by sponsoring campaigns to promote Joban mono and processed seafood from Fukushima. TEPCO has pledged to address reputational damage and compensation claims from China's export ban.
Tetsu Nozaki, head of fishing cooperatives in Fukushima Prefecture, said in a statement that the fishing community's concerns will remain as long as the water is released.
"Our only desire is to continue fishing in our town for generations, as we did before the accident," Nozaki said.
Fish prices depend heavily on the sentiment of wholesalers and consumers in the Tokyo area, where large chunks of Fukushima's catch go.
At Friday's auction in the port of Numanuchi, the price for flounder fell from the usual level of about 3,500 yen ($24) per kilogram (2.2 pounds) to about 3,000 yen ($20), said Igari, the broker. .
"I suspect the result is due to the start of the treated water emissions from Fukushima Daiichi and the fear of its impact," he said.
Igari said the rejection is discouraging, but he hopes careful testing can prove the safety of their fish. "From a consumer's perspective on food safety at home, I think data is the best barometer," he said.
At Mother's Radiation Lab Fukushima in Iwaki, a civilian test center known as Tarachine, tests were conducted on water samples, including tritium levels in seawater the lab collected near the Fukushima Daiichi plant before the launch.
Lab director Ai Kimura said anyone can bring food, water or even soil, although the lab has long delays because testing takes time.
She entered the lab after regretting that she may not have fully protected her daughters due to her lack of information and knowledge earlier in the disaster. She says having independent test results is important not because of distrust of government data, but because "we've learned over the last 12 years how important it is to get data" about what mothers want to know about serving safe and healthy foods. to children, parents. children and families.
Kimura said people have different views on security: Some think government standards are good, others want them as close to zero as possible.
"It's very difficult to make everyone feel safe. … That's why we're testing, so we can visualize food data from different places and help people have more options to make a decision,” he said.
Kimura said lab tests in recent years have shown the Fukushima fish is safe and she likes to eat local fish.
"It's good to eat fish that don't contain radiation," he said.
But now the emissions of treated sewage will raise new questions, he said.
Aeon, a large supermarket chain that tests fish for cesium and iodine levels, has announced plans to also test for tritium, a radionuclide that cannot be separated from water.
Katsumasa Okawa, a fishmonger and restaurant operator who was at one of his four shops Thursday, said customers were scarce after the plant began the final steps of releasing treated water at 1 p.m. and media reports related to the development.
But on Friday, he said, the Yamako seafood restaurant next to Iwaki Central Station appeared to be operating normally, with customers coming and going at noon.
Okawa said he viewed the disposal of the wastewater as a big step toward decommissioning the nuclear power plant. "I feel more comfortable when I think that these tanks will finally disappear."
Okawa, who said he voluntarily tested his products several years after the disaster, worries about a return to the days of radiation testing and data as a benchmark for what to eat.
"I think too much test data is just worrisome," he said. "I'm confident in what I'm selling and I'll just get on with my job."
Some people say they want to eat good fish and not worry.
Bus driver Hideki Tanaka, who was on vacation and fishing at another port in Onagawa's Iwaki, said he was hoping to catch bream.
"If you worry too much, you can't eat fish anywhere," he said.