IWAKI, Japan – The earthquake and tsunami that ripped through northern Japan in March 2011 took so much from Tatsuo Niitsuma, a commercial fisherman in this coastal city in Fukushima Prefecture.
The tsunami pulverized his fishing boat. It demolished his home. Most devastating of all, it took the life of his daughter.
Now, nearly nine years after the disaster, Niitsuma, 77, is at risk of losing his entire livelihood, too, as the government considers releasing tainted water from a nuclear power plant destroyed by the tsunami.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's Cabinet and Tokyo Electric Power Co. — operator of the Fukushima Daiichi plant, where a triple meltdown led to the worst nuclear crisis since Chernobyl — must decide what to do with more than 1 million tons of contaminated water stored in about 1,000 giant tanks on the plant site.
On Monday, Japan's Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry proposed gradually releasing the water into the ocean or allowing it to evaporate, saying a controlled discharge into the sea would "stably dilute and disperse" it. The ministry ruled out alternatives like continuing to store it in tanks or injecting it deep into the ground. Abe's Cabinet will make the final decision.
The water becomes contaminated as it is pumped through the reactors to cool melted fuel that is still too hot and radioactive to remove. For years, the power company, known as TEPCO, said that treatment of the water — which involves sending it through a powerful filtration system to remove most radioactive material — was making it safe to release.
But it is actually more radioactive than authorities have publicized. Officials said that it will be treated again and that it will then be safe for release.
Regardless of assurances, if the water is discharged into the sea, it will most likely destroy the livelihoods of hundreds of fishermen like Niitsuma. Consumers are worried about the safety of Fukushima seafood, and dumping the water would compound the fears. It would "kill the industry and take away the life of the boats," he said. "The fish won't sell."
With Fukushima preparing to host baseball games during the Summer Olympics next year, and the plant running out of land on which to build storage tanks, the debate has taken on a sense of urgency.
Until last year, TEPCO indicated that with the vast majority of the water, all but one type of radioactive material — tritium, an isotope of hydrogen that experts said poses a relatively low risk to human health — had been removed to levels deemed safe for discharge under Japanese government standards.
But last summer, the power company acknowledged that only about a fifth of the stored water had been effectively treated.
Last month, the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry briefed reporters about the water stored in Fukushima. More than three-quarters of it, the ministry said, still contains radioactive material other than tritium — and at higher levels than the government considers safe for human health.
Authorities said that in the early years of processing the deluge of water flowing through the reactors, TEPCO did not change filters in the decontamination system frequently enough. The company said it would re-treat the water to filter out the bulk of the nuclear particles, making it safe to release into the ocean.
Some experts and residents said it is difficult to trust such assurances. "The government and TEPCO were hiding the fact that the water was still contaminated," said Kazuyoshi Satoh, a member of the city assembly in Iwaki.
"Because next year is the Tokyo Olympics, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe wants to present the image that everything is 'under control,' " said Satoh, referring to a speech by the Japanese leader to the International Olympic Committee when Tokyo was bidding to host the 2020 Games.
The power company acknowledged that it had not made it easy for the public to get information. The water treatment data "has not been presented in a manner that is easy to understand," said Ryounosuke Takanori, a TEPCO spokesman.
"As long as the water was stored in the tanks, we thought it didn't matter whether the water" exceeded safety standards for discharge, said Junichi Matsumoto, a general manager in the Fukushima Daiichi decontamination and decommissioning office.
Niitsuma, for whom fishing is a balm against grief over the loss of his daughter, said he thought both TEPCO and the government needed to come clean. "I want them to see the reality squarely and disclose information fully," said Niitsuma, who goes out alone on his 2-ton boat at dawn three times a week.